CBS, Strong In Key Demo, Could Come From Behind

Though ABC is the 18-49 leader, researchers say CBS may end up No. 1 due to a more stable slate.

The stability of the CBS prime-time schedule so far this season, combined with its telecast of Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4, 2007, could be enough for the network to hold off Fox and American Idol to win the season in the key adults 18-49 demo, media agency researchers argued last week. But a lot will depend on how strongly ABC is able to defend its current lead.

“CBS is the only network that does not rely on short-term programming for ratings boosts,” said Steve Sternberg, evp of audience analysis for Magna Global USA. “This puts CBS in good shape going forward. It should win [the season] among adults 25-54 and be right in the middle of the 18-49 race.”

Likewise, Sam Armando, svp, director of television research at Starcom, explained, “CBS’ stability and the ability of its procedurals to repeat well will keep its ratings consistently high all season. While Fox will make up ground once American Idol comes on, it has more ground to make up this year than it did last year. Instead of it being the icing on the cake for Fox, Idol will be the cake. If it falters, it opens the door for CBS or ABC.”

Through the first 11 weeks of the new season, ABC is the adults 18-49 ratings leader with a 3.9, followed by CBS and NBC tied at 3.7, Fox with a 2.8 and the CW with a 1.4. Last year at this point, ABC was averaging a 4.2, CBS a 4.0, NBC and Fox 3.3 apiece, and UPN and the WB (which merged into the CW) tied at 1.5. Although it led at this point last year—and even though it aired Super Bowl XL—ABC was beaten by Fox in the 18-49 ratings race last season.

Armando said ABC’s chance of winning the 18-49 race largely rests on how strongly its veteran drama Lost does when it returns in February for its final 16 episodes. He added ABC didn’t help itself by putting Lost on hiatus (until February) after only six episodes.

But so far this season, the story clearly is how well CBS’ procedural dramas are holding up. And CBS’ performance continues to confound media critics who as far back as two summers ago were saying that the network’s continued reliance on procedurals could doom the network if that genre ever fell out of favor with viewers.

There are certainly cracks in that procedural armor, but as a whole, CBS remains strong. The network’s biggest show for the last several years, CSI, is down 30 percent because it airs directly against ABC hit Grey’s Anatomy (8.3), but it’s still doing a solid 6.8. Other procedurals CSI: NY (5.2) and Cold Case (3.8) are flat over last season, which isn’t bad at all. Better yet, second-year procedural Criminal Minds (5.7) is up 33 percent—for most of the fall, it’s been up against Lost (5.9, down 26 percent).

Kelly Kahl, evp of program planning and scheduling for CBS, said procedurals “are the unsung heroes of our prime-time schedule. There is no way to overstate the value of shows that air well in first-run and in repeats. We are not dependent on just a few shows to prop up our whole schedule.”

CBS’ only real programming stumble so far this season—Tuesdays at 10 p.m.—will be patched up with repeats of procedurals in the short term. Last week, CBS cancelled its new medical drama 3 lbs. after only three weeks, since it was averaging only a 2.8 in 18-49. The show had replaced high-profile heist drama Smith, which ironically delivered higher ratings than its replacement.

Meanwhile, ABC, which most media observers thought would dip in 18-49 delivery early in the season without Monday Night Football, remains the leader in the demo. Its schedule may be less stable than CBS’, but it programs some of the hottest shows on TV: reality hit Dancing With the Stars, veteran drama trio of Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Lost, and freshman hit Ugly Betty.

But ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson is loathe to predict an 18-49 win over Fox just yet. “With 47 hours of American Idol on its schedule beginning in January, Fox will be hard to beat,” said McPherson.

At this point in the season, McPherson said he is not leaning toward going for Fox’s jugular by placing Dancing With the Stars in March directly against Idol. “We are trying to rebuild this network night by night, like we did this season with Thursdays,” he said.

While moving Grey’s Anatomy from 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays at 9 has not increased that show’s 18-49 rating (8.3), it has given the ABC sales department a big-ticket show to lure big-spending movie and retail advertisers. McPherson’s other decision, moving Ugly Betty from its originally planned 8 p.m. Friday at 8 slot to Thursdays at 8 has resulted in the show producing a 4.2 18-49 rating, much higher than it would have done on Friday.

Not all has been smooth for ABC. Only two of the eight new shows ABC has put on can be considered keepers for next season (Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters). But Starcom’s Armando believes the network can follow a similar pattern to CBS, which took nearly a decade to rebuild itself. “It’s about finding a few pieces a year,” Armando said. “Little by little, ABC will move toward the stability that CBS now has, but it can’t be done in one or two seasons.”

McPherson does acknowledge that how the network finishes the season in the 18-49 race will depend heavily on Lost. “We are hoping 16 first-run, back-to-back episodes will help us” draw a larger audience, he said. He added that when the series returns, it would drill deeper back into the core storyline.

Until Lost and Dancing return on ABC, CBS’ Kahl believes his net can make tracks. “Where the other networks will struggle in December and January with their serialized repeats, our procedurals tend to repeat remarkably strong,” said Kahl. But he stopped short of predicting an 18-49 victory for the season. “It’s nice to be in the 18-49 mix, but our main goal is still to win 25-54. If our 25-54 numbers are doing as well as we hope, then our 18-49 numbers will make us competitive.”