ABC is back in the game, but the Disney network's team still has some holes in its starting lineup, media buyers said.
Strong performances by several of ABC's freshman programs have been offset somewhat by below-average ratings from several returning shows, resulting in modest ratings gains—3 percent—for ABC's overall 18-49 demo.
Media buyers said, however, that the fast start out of the gate for sci-fi show Lost, quirky drama Desperate Housewives, The Practice spinoff Boston Legal and reality series Wife Swap bodes well for a network that came out of last season with no new scripted hits. Buyers said that strong performances by ABC's freshman shows are drawing new viewers to the network, exposing them to promotions for ABC's veteran programs, with a real possibility of driving traffic to those shows as the season continues.
The early success has also kept ABC's upfront ad packages on par with ratings guarantees, enabling the network to sell scatter spots on these shows at hefty increases from upfront prices.
"The folks who invested heavily in ABC in the upfront are going to do very well," said John Muszynski, managing director of investment and operations for Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA. "We were very high on ABC after seeing their pilots. We took a chance paying cost-per-thousand increases that may have seemed a little high. But we think we will do very well long-term."
Added ABC sales and marketing president Mike Shaw, "We had a decent week of steady scatter sales after these new shows premiered. It's been a while since that happened."
Muszynski noted that from a buyer's perspective, the more networks that have successful, "water-cooler" shows, the better. "The more horses in the race, the better the race," he said.
In the Wednesday 8-9 p.m. hour, Lost is delivering an 18-49 rating that is 30 percent higher (6.4) than the shows in that time period last season. On Wednesdays at 10 p.m., Wife Swap's 18-49 rating (4.0) is up in the period by 21 percent from last season. On Sunday at 9 p.m., Desperate Housewives' 18-49 premiere rating (7.8) was 89 percent higher than Alias was in that period last season, while at 10 p.m., Boston Legal's 18-49 premiere rating was up 26 percent from last year's opener of The Practice.
Also having a banner season for ABC is its returning reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (Sunday 8-9 p.m.). The fixer-upper hour is producing an average 18-49 rating of 6.5. That represents an impressive 120 percent increase from last season's ratings, when drama 10-8 filled the hour.
But some veterans are not keeping up. Dragging down the network's overall numbers has been the slow start of returning shows. Four of ABC's Friday-night comedies—8 Simple Rules, Hope & Faith, Less Than Perfect and Savages—are cumulatively down 54 percent in the 18-49 demo across the night compared with the shows that aired there last season. And once-sizzling reality show The Bachelor is down 35 percent in the 18-49 demo compared with last season's numbers.
Shaw believes the slower start of The Bachelor is a result of some stunting that NBC and CBS have done in the time period thus far. "[Those two networks] have yet to air the regular shows that will be in that time period," Shaw said. The Bachelor was up 9 percent in viewers and 9 percent in adults 18-49 last week from the week before.
ABC has also yet to premiere the new season of the Wonderful World of Disney on Saturday nights. In its place, it has aired movies, which have not done as well in the ratings. The ABC Saturday Night Movie has drawn 18-49 ratings that are 28 percent lower than the Wonderful World of Disney on Saturday at 8-10 p.m. during the same first two weeks last season.