Fox is suffering through its annual post-baseball prime-time "flailing cycle," mired in fourth place among the five broadcast networks. Fourth-quarter ratings in the advertiser-desired adults 18-49 demo are a full rating point and three share points behind first place ABC (3.9/11 vs. 2.9/8).
Fourth place at this time of year is not unusual for Fox. Neither is first place at the end of May: In recent years, aided by the January ratings juggernaut American Idol, Fox has come back to win the 18-49 title for the season.
Fox is further behind ABC than it was last year at this point, when ABC's lead was only eight-tenths of a rating point and two share points. And ABC, which no longer has Monday Night Football in its fourth quarter, will not suffer the 18-49 ratings falloff of recent years when football left the schedule in January. Fox is also 0.8 of a rating point behind CBS (last season it trailed CBS by 0.6 at this point), and CBS will be carrying Super Bowl XLI this season. That means Fox has a lot to overcome.
Right now, other than dramas House and, to a lesser extent, Bones, very little is working for Fox. The heavily male-oriented Sunday comedy/animation block, hurt by NBC's new Sunday Night Football telecasts, is down 6 percent among adults 18-49 and is cumulatively off 900,000 viewers. And moving its 9 p.m. hit drama Prison Break to 8 p.m. this year in order to try to launch a new drama series, Vanished, has resulted in a 14 percent ratings decline for the former. Even more troubling, none of Fox's new series have broken out. New drama Standoff, the network's highest ranking new show among adults 18-49, is drawing a mere 2.8. And veteran drama The O.C., which returned two weeks ago, is averaging only a 1.4 in 18-49s, more than 50 percent lower than last season.
"We are now in our annual flailing cycle," acknowledged Preston Beckman, senior vp for strategic program planning at Fox. "We will always, because of having to preempt a good portion of our scripted shows in October for the Major League Baseball postseason, go into January with a ratings disadvantage because of the disruption of the schedule."
And this season, Beckman explained: "If we are guilty of anything, it's of being a little too mainstream with our new shows. We picked our best-testing pilots, which were more traditional TV dramas, and moved our highest rated returning shows to 8 p.m. to lead into those new dramas. I think next season we will go back to at least a few more Fox-type shows that push the envelope."
Beckman added that Fox also was not helped by MLB's postseason, which drew some of the lowest ratings ever. There will be less postseason baseball on Fox next fall under its new TV rights deal, which should help with its scheduling continuity.
But Beckman said he expects to gain ground very quickly in January. "ABC does not have the Super Bowl this year and the Super Bowl can mean as much as two-tenths of a rating point," Beckman said. "We have the college Bowl Championship Series national title game, which ABC had last year. We premiere 24 in January, have a prime-time NFL playoff game that month and will premiere Idol with a two-hour episode on Jan. 16, with another two-hour show the following night. By Jan. 18, I think it's reasonable to say we will no longer be a full rating point behind ABC."
The media-buying community generally agrees that Fox's fortunes will likely improve. "Sunday Night Football is going off after the fourth quarter, so Fox's animation block will benefit from that," said Steve Sternberg, executive vp and director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA. "ABC's Monday is now primarily driven by women, and ESPN's Monday Night Football will be over, so 24, with a more male audience, should benefit from that. As long as American Idol does not decline significantly, Fox should be right in the middle of the 18-49 race from January on."
Brad Adgate, senior vp, director of research at Horizon Media, also sees Fox in the hunt, but said there will be a point at which even Idol begins to lose some audience. "Nothing continues to go up year after year in prime-time television, and Idol has increased its audience four years in a row," he said.
Adgate does credit Fox with not resorting to its strategy in years past of replacing sagging scripted shows with schlocky reality. "Sticking with even lower-rated scripted shows gives the network a better image," he said.
Beckman said the network will stick with that plan, but concedes that probably only one of its three new dramas will survive. While he declined to identify those to be cut, it seems likely Standoff will probably get the coveted American Idol lead-out slot in January in an attempt to grow its audience. Beckman also said the network plans to be "patient" with freshman sitcom 'Til Death, and will keep The O.C. on board to finish out the season.
Fox also committed to two new midseason dramas, Drive and The Wedding Store, Beckman said, unlike last season when no new dramas premiered after the fourth quarter. It also has two new sitcoms in the works, he added.
The ratings shortfalls have forced Fox to give make-goods to some advertisers, particularly those not in packages that contain Idol or those that need immediate audience deficiency units. But the network may not be in such bad shape, because many agencies negotiated for the fourth quarter based on Fox's end-of-year history.