Wild Cards

Networks have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em
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This time last year, the television industry was agog over ABC’s breakout monster hits Desperate Housewivesand Lost. As the new fall season unfolded this year, anticipation of another splashy debut or two was palpable, even though veteran TV hands know that instant mega-success is a rarity. And sure enough, this fall’s big story is the middling success of the networks’ slates of new shows.

Yes, there have been some notably strong performances, like My Name Is Earl’s for NBC and Commander in Chief’s for ABC, and some of the customary quick failures (WB’s cancelled Just Legal was just lethal, and Fox should plead temporary insanity for having granted Head Cases even a brief tryout). But the major theme of the fall so far: the encouraging number of shows that are doing well enough, if not to become huge hits, then at least to avoid being obvious candidates for the ax, and the way these solid performers are spread evenly among the networks for a change.

Though it’s still early, industry insiders have been eagerly reading the ratings tea leaves. Beyond handicapping which shows will last and which will go, and how various networks are faring (ABC galloping, CBS strong but possibly tiring, NBC limping worse than ever), the industry savants we consulted reached some wider-ranging conclusions as well.

After years of flocking to procedural dramas, audiences appear to be cooling to the genre, or at least to be unwilling to add copycat newcomers to their viewing habit. Reality TV, the demise of which has been regularly predicted for years, may in fact be finally losing its juggernaut status. And cable television, which used to cede the fall to broadcasters, has made inroads that—as with every other incursion of cable on broadcasters’ turf—are likely to become only more pronounced in future seasons.

Wall Street has already started to weigh in on the networks’ fall fortunes. While cautioning that the season is still young and merits further tracking, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Michael Nathanson lauded the gains made after three weeks by Fox and ABC in the 18-49 demo from last year (up 20% and 8%, respectively).

Nathanson’s report noted that the networks’ owners, Disney and News Corp., have similar revenue exposure (about 11% each) to broadcast advertising and “could see positive earnings revisions” if the trend continues.

Fox has scored with its post-season baseball action and some strong showings by rookie drama Prison Break and offbeat medical drama House, which is a bona fide hit in its second year. ABC is primarily building on its existing franchises: Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy on Sunday, Lost on Wednesday. The supernatural drama Invasion follows Lost, and while Invasion pulls in a respectable audience of about 11 million, that means it loses half of its Lost lead-in.

ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson says Invasion’s future will hinge on where it stabilizes in the next four to six weeks. He laughs at all the early ratings analysis, pointing out that staggered premieres, the baseball playoffs and other factors have meant that “there is too much weird competition now to make predictions.”

Analyst Nathanson was unenthusiastic about the performances of NBC and CBS, which he called “on the losing side.” Both networks are shedding viewers in the key 18-49 demo. The 13% drop at the still-struggling NBC is surprising—apparently when things are dark, they can get even darker (no thanks to Inconceivable, a misbegotten fertility-clinic drama that aired twice before being pulled from the schedule).

A CURIOUS LOSS

But perhaps the most curious loss is the 5% drop at CBS from last year. Although it remains the dominant network in total viewers and older demos, CBS is slowly losing audience across the board. The loss is “significant,” Nathanson wrote, because the network has been the most stable the past five seasons and “is about to take on a bigger role as Viacom will split itself into two parts” early next year. According to Nathanson’s estimates, CBS will account for about 28% of the total revenue of the new company: “Any material change to CBS’ ratings will become a greater issue for investors.”

Nathanson didn’t separate out CBS’ little cousin UPN, which rose 7% in 18-49 in the season’s first three weeks, despite the inauspicious debut of the soapy Sex, Love & Secrets, which prompted the network to stop production after one airing. Much of UPN’s upturn can be attributed to the heavily promoted Everybody Hates Chris. Although UPN’s primary target is 18-34s, Chris likely will be judged on whether it can remain above a 2 rating in 18-49 in its highly competitive 8 p.m. Thursday-night slot. Should it drop below a 2, it would fall into the undistinguished ratings territory of UPN’s Monday-night comedies All of Us and One on One.

Former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield is an analyst of another sort. Having worked for years alongside late programming legend Brandon Tartikoff, he knows the business as well as anyone. One of his insights into the new season: TV has reached the procedural saturation point. “You cannot launch a procedural hour in any time period without going against an incumbent procedural drama,” says Littlefield (who doesn’t happen to be in the procedural game right now; he’s executive producer of UPN sitcom Love, Inc.). “Therefore, there are a few being sold and developed, but not a lot.”

The established procedurals, like Dick Wolf’s Law & Order shows and Jerry Bruckheimer’s various CSIs, have maintained their popularity with viewers, but a newcomer like this season’s Night Stalker on ABC has struggled: Its 7 million average viewers are a quarter of the 28 million who watch CBS’ CSI—which happens to be the top-rated show and airs opposite Night Stalker on Thursday nights. Of course, it’s not clear whether the problems have to do with the quality of the show itself (with Stuart Townsend as a journalist investigating spooky crimes) or with the procedural genre.

Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori remains bullish on the genre, saying procedurals will remain “as part of a good programming mix.” Like any genre, he says, procedurals just need to keep evolving in their conception. House, he says, represents “the next bounce on procedurals.”

A genre that may have lost some of its bounce: reality TV. Both Survivor and Amazing Race, two staples of CBS’ overall preeminence in recent years, have seen their audiences shrink in the first three weeks this fall (19% and 12%, respectively, in 18-49 from last year); they’re still strong, however, against tougher competition. And NBC’s Apprentice franchise appears to be tottering, regardless of whether Donald Trump or Martha Stewart is in charge; neither show is exactly stopping the bleeding at NBC.

“The decline of reality is official now,” says Littlefield. “The genre, which took so many dollars and time periods out of the marketplace, is just not as much of a dominant force anymore. For people who play in the world of scripted TV”—like Littlefield himself, it should be said—“it’s a very welcome sign.”

Of course, given the sheer number of unscripted shows on television, the “decline” could be a very gentle slope. But Littlefield is hardly alone among industry insiders when he says that TV has entered an era when fresh blood and fresh ideas are required—and welcome. “I think everybody more or less admits the old rules no longer apply,” he says. “Those who have taken risks the last few years have not always been rewarded, but enough so that people will continue to do it.”

The networks learned last season that viewers are hungry for ambitious new concepts that stretch familiar formats, says Fox’s Liguori: “As the landscape becomes a little more homogenous, it further inspires us to want to try something different.” As examples, he cites event series like ABC’s Lost and Fox’s Prison Break, the latter having the makings of a freshman hit.

Liguori’s counterpart at ABC, McPherson, lists Prison Break among the most promising new shows in what he calls an “interesting fall”—one that might lack game-changers like last year’s Housewives and Loston his network but is hardly a low-achiever. He singles out solid early performers spread across all the networks: ABC’s Commander in Chief,NBC’s Earl, CBS’ Criminal Minds and Ghost Whisperer, Fox’s Prison Break, The WB’s Supernatural, and UPN’s Chris.

McPherson attributes the more level playing field this fall to the fact that “everyone stepped up their marketing efforts.”

Another factor, says WB Entertainment President David Janollari, is the simple truth of TV programming: Runaway hits like the ones ABC launched last year are a rarity. “Those things come around once a decade,” he says, noting that, before ABC’s coup, the last time a network launched two gigantic franchises in the same season was NBC with Friends and ER in 1994.

STRONG LEAD-INS NOT NEEDED

One encouraging development for networks this fall: the apparent ability of some freshman series (Commander in Chief, My Name Is Earl) to draw viewers without requiring a strong lead-in to jump-start their ratings. If the trend holds, it would delight networks in search of franchises to build on new nights and in new time periods.

Less encouraging for the six broadcast networks: Although their combined prime time ratings were either stable or down marginally (depending on the demo) from a year ago, aggregate ratings for ad-supported cable climbed 2%-5% for adults and about 11% among teens. That shift might have been expected, given that this fall cable signaled its willingness to try to steal some of the broadcasters’ thunder. The Sept. 20 premiere of Nip/Tuck on FX was just one indication of challenges likely to come for broadcasters.

Cable whittled away more than ever at broadcast numbers over the summer, tipping the balance to a 60.9 share versus broadcast’s 32.7. In the fall, the margin narrowed to a 53.8 share for cable and 45.6 share for broadcast, thanks primarily to strong showings by ABC and Fox, according to Turner research chief Jack Wakshlag. (Last year, ad-supported cable out-delivered the broadcast networks in household share during the early fall season for the first time, 51.9 vs. 43.1).

“Cable grows in share and rating year-to-year every single quarter,” Wakshlag says. “In the old days, it was increased penetration, then more channels. Now it’s about programming and marketing.”

FX FLOUTS TRADITION

While ESPN, as it has since 1998, brings in many cable viewers each fall with Sunday-night football—and Monday-night football starting next year—the entertainment cable networks are doing their part. They deftly tied up summer originals as fall arrived, then rolled out new acquired dramas and movies for the fourth quarter.

USA added prime time episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent in September; Lifetime will run its first two-night miniseries Human Trafficking Oct. 24; and TNT is banking on major theatricals, premiering triple plays of Erin Brockovich, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Spiderman in the coming months.

Meanwhile, when FX flouted the cable tradition of clustering the premieres of original scripted series during the summer by bringing back Nip/Tuck in September, the network was rewarded with an average 4.5 million total viewers in its first three episodes—up 20% over season two.

FX’s fall scheduling “took some cojones, and clearly it didn’t hurt them,” says Sci Fi/USA President Bonnie Hammer.

Hammer’s own network also has been aggressive. USA, having grabbed World Wrestling Entertainment from Spike, debuted WWE Raw on Oct. 3, marketing it heavily under the network’s “Characters Welcome” tagline. It was a winner for the network, pulling in 5.6 million total viewers.

“Cable is a true competitor now,” Hammer says. “You see it in the way the ad dollars are going and in cable’s increasing growth of viewership. Cable’s getting more aggressive about where they put their original shows. We don’t run and hide.”

It used to hide. Now it’s what cable is seeking that could make future fall seasons more fascinating than ever.

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