CBS Fires First Shot In Prime-Time Battle

CBS won bragging rights during last week’s broadcast prime-time premiere week, and even staged a ratings coup when it beat top network NBC on Thursday, a key night for the network in all of its advertiser packages. Although it’s only the start of the season, CBS’ impressive performance—through the first four days, every prime-time show drew at least 10 million viewers—caused whispers to grow louder that NBC’s four-season reign as champion of the 18-49 adult demographic could be over.

The official 2004-05 ratings season began Sept. 20. But since early September, NBC has been rolling out new shows, several of which have already declined steadily, especially last week when they faced serious first-run competition from the other networks.

In fact, CBS beat NBC in several crucial time slots last week. At 10 p.m. Monday, CSI: Miami outdelivered LAX by 14.5 million viewers, and 8.1 to 3.1 in adults 18-49. On Wednesday at 10 p.m., CSI: NY beat the veteran Law & Order by 4 million viewers, and 7.1 to 5.5 in 18-49. And on “Must-See TV” Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Survivor beat the cumulative average of sitcoms Joey and Will & Grace 7.5 to 6.7 in 18-49, while at 9 p.m. CSI topped The Apprentice in 18-49 11.4 to 8.0.

Lyle Schwartz, managing partner of research and market analysis at WPP Group’s Mediaedge:cia, said, “Round one goes to the CSI franchise, but we still think that race is going to be neck and neck all season.”

NBC even tried to give Law & Order some traction in its head-to-head battle with CSI: NY by premiering the series at 9 p.m. and following with another new episode at 10. But it didn’t seem to help, with the 10 p.m. L&O losing 3.5 million of its lead-in audience. NBC has a few other chinks in its armor, with Fear Factor, new animated comedy Father of the Pride and new drama Hawaii all sagging.

Steve Sternberg, executive vp and director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group’s Magna Global USA, believes NBC may have used a flawed strategy. “By scheduling the Law & Order premiere at 9 p.m. and another at 10 p.m., NBC in effect gave viewers a chance to see the season opener of both Law & Order and CSI: NY, since both shows have a similar audience skew.”

Perhaps the biggest single surprise of the week was the performance of ABC’s Wednesday 8 p.m. drama, Lost, which drew 18.9 million viewers and a solid 6.8 in adults 18-49, exceeding most media buyers’ expectations. ABC freshman sitcom Rodney, leading out of veteran According to Jim, posted a decent 3.9 in 18-49. One blot for ABC was The Bachelor’s disappointing premiere on Wednesday at 9 p.m., off 4.4 million viewers and down to a 3.7 in 18-49 compared to last season.

There was one bright spot entering last weekend for NBC: Law and Order: SVU grew 2 percent in adults in 18-49 and by 1 million viewers over its premiere last season. But even that carries an asterisk: CBS’ Judging Amy has not yet premiered this fall.

One top media buyer, who did not want to speak for attribution, was more dire about NBC’s situation, saying the network could be on the brink of unwinding. “A majority of their returning shows are aging and at the end of their rope,” he said. “Few of their sophomore and junior shows are taking off, and not many of their new shows this year will stick around. The only positive is that they sold most of their shows at realistic estimates and they seem to have enough inventory on hand for make-goods.”

Naturally, one week does not a season make. Last week’s ratings shifts reflect only a fraction of an entire season, so only so much can be read into them. However, it does signify that it’s going to be a pretty competitive season, especially the battle for adults 18-49. “Midseason programming could be the thing that swings it one way or the other,” noted Sternberg.