Upfront 2003: Network Report Card

As we head into network upfront season—NBC kicks off the annual buyer presentations on May 12—the mood in the buying community remains an odd mixture of hope and uncertainty. Naturally the networks are looking to duplicate the success of shows like CSI, Friends and American Idol.

But can they find new hits of this magnitude, or will the overall business remain marred by ongoing total viewer losses? So far this season (Sept. 23, 2002 through April 13, 2003), the broadcast nets continue to lose audience with a combined 52.05 million viewers for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB, off 1.22 million, or two percent, from the comparable period a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research. Although not every network is on the downside, overall erosion of 3 percent among adults 18-49 means that network viewership has still not bottomed out.

“The last time there wasn’t year-to-year erosion was in the 1991-92 season, and that was because of better-than-expected levels for the Summer Olympics on NBC,” says Brad Adgate, senior vp of corporate research at Horizon Media. “Cable and Internet usage, in particular, continue to negatively impact the broadcast nets.”

In another season of mixed leadership, CBS is first in households and total viewers, with NBC No. 1 among adults 18-49. CBS’advantage over NBC in terms of viewers (911,000) should be enough to guarantee it a win for the entire season, but American Idol-fueled Fox could pull an upset and move ahead of NBC in the key demo. Elsewhere, ABC has stopped the bleeding, the WB is enjoying a season of growth and UPN is off by significant proportions.

To determine which, if any, of the networks are worthy of bragging rights, what follows are the ratings by network season to date.

CBS

Households: 8.3 rating/13 share (+ 2 percent)

Total viewers: 12.61 million (+ 3 percent)

Adults 18-49: 3.9/10 (no change)

No. 1 in households, total viewers; tied for No. 3 among adults 18-49



While its competitors will point out that CBS is tied for third with ABC among adults 18-49, its first-place position in both households and total viewers, its growth in most key demos and the expected return of at least four freshman shows next season (CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, Still Standing, Hack) all spell momentum at the Eye network. So far this season, CBS has narrowed the gap on Thursday with champ NBC, while improving its position four nights of the week (Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday).

On the flipside, Wednesday remains weak, Saturday at 8 p.m. has sprung a leak and the Sunday movie continues to erode. And with an average viewer age of 51.4, CBS is the oldest-skewing network. “As much as shows like CSI and Survivor have attracted younger viewers, CBS overall is considerably older than the other networks. In today’s selling environment, that is not a positive,” says Adgate.

“CBS really has done a good job of planning ahead with a well-balanced line-up of different programming options,” counters Bill Carroll, vp/director of programming at Katz Television. “Although no schedule is perfect, one look at CBS and at least one successful anchor series is present on every night of the week. That’s a real positive for the future.”



NBC

Households: 7.7/13 (-13 percent)

Total viewers: 11.70 million (-14 percent)

Adults 18-49: 4.5/12 (-15 percent)

No. 2 in households, total viewers; No. 1 in adults 18-49



In fairness to NBC, the Winter Olympics did air on the network last season. But even when excluding those weeks from the averages, the network remains on the downside. In just one season, NBC’s hefty, 1.2 adult 18-49 rating advantage over second-place Fox has shrunk to just 0.3. The network is down in the coveted demo six nights of the week (Monday is the exception), and year-to-year total viewer erosion is evident every single night. While the return of Friends means NBC can breathe a bit easier next season, aging shows and an array of failed freshman entries (A.U.S.A., Mister Sterling, Hidden Hills, In-Laws) are long-term obstacles NBC must face.

“NBC’s inability to capitalize on key hammocked time periods on Tuesday and Thursday has significantly hurt them,” says John Rash, senior vp of program planning and negotiations at Campbell Mithun. “Although the right programming can turn any network around, it could be now or never given that Friends is ending.”

“This really is the last hurrah for NBC,” notes Shari Anne Brill, vp and director of programming at Carat USA. “Friends is ending, Frasier is on its way out, The West Wing and ER are down and there are no new breakout hits this season. Without the generation of new comedies, NBC’s future is at risk.”



ABC

Households: 6.4/10 (no change)

Total viewers: 10.23 million (+ 4) Adults 18-49: 3.9/10 (+8)

No. 3 in households, total viewers; tied for No. 3 among adults 18-49



No one ever said rebuilding a network would be easy. But ABC’s ratings are beginning to rise, sitcom 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter is the net’s first successful building block and The Bachelor/The Bachelorette franchise continues its success. Ratings are up five nights of the week, with Wednesday posting the largest gains. While the return of Monday Night Football in the fourth quarter and the renewal of all its Tuesday and Wednesday comedies are stabilizing factors, Thursday and Friday could use a major shot of adrenaline.

“By hitting rock-bottom last season, ABC can now move forward,” Carroll says. “After some promising results in the comedy department, they now have to concentrate on working on the other genres.” Adds Rash: “ABC knew going into this season it would be difficult to rebound. It’s a long road to recovery, but with patience, promotion and more new hit shows, they might be able to turn it around.”



Fox

Households: 6.0 /10 (+ 3 percent)

Total viewers: 9.86 million (+ 4 percent)

Adults 18-49: 4.2/11 (+ 2 percent)

No. 4 in households, total viewers; No. 2 among adults 18-49



It wasn’t that long ago that Fox was languishing in virtual oblivion. New hours from David E. Kelley (girls club) and Joss Whedon (Firefly) came and went, drama Septuplets and sitcom The Grubbs never even made it on the airwaves and erosion ran rampant every night of the week. Flash to the present, and the American Idol-propelled network is poised to lead this season among adults 18-49.

Meanwhile, Thursday is a veritable wasteland, Friday dramas Fastlane and John Doe are floundering, Married By America has dropped the ball in the Monday 9 p.m. time period and nothing leading out of Malcolm in the Middle on Sunday seems to work. “In today’s environment, one or two shows can turn around a network’s entire fortunes,” says Carroll. “And thanks to American Idol and Joe Millionaire, the tide has suddenly turned to Fox’s favor. But their emphasis must remain in the scripted arena if they want to keep the momentum going.”

“Fox knows they can’t just rest on reality,” notes Brill. “With Sunday still strong, 24 returning on Tuesday and Bernie Mac back where it belongs [Wednesday at 9 p.m.], they have a number of shows to build from. Their biggest obstacle will be fixing Thursday and Friday.”



WB

Households: 2.6/4 (+ 8 percent)

Total viewers: 4.09 million (+11 percent)

Adults 18-34: 2.0/6 (+11 percent)

No. 5 in households, total viewers, adults 18-34



All things considered, the frog net is growing by leaps and bounds. Ratings are up five of six nights of the week (Thursday is the exception). Sunday finally looks promising, thanks to Charmed. Everwood is a bona fide new hit, and reality has a home on the net for the first time in its history. With four hit dramas on Monday and Tuesday alone (7th Heaven, Everwood, Gilmore Girls and Smallville), the emphasis remains building a successful sitcom artillery. Although Reba remains the standout on Friday, expanding to a second night of young adult comedies on Thursday met with limited results this season.

“You really have to admire the progress the WB has made,” says Adgate. “Everwood is the first show to click out of 7th Heaven, and Smallville could be used as a building block on another evening. Although comedy is not a strong point, Reba could be used to build the night around.” Adds Brill: “Now that they used Charmed to fix Sunday, Thursday is the priority. Opposite CBS and NBC, that’s a programming challenge that won’t come easy.”



UPN

Households: 2.3/4 (-15 percent)

Total viewers: 3.56 million (-18 percent)

Adults 18-34: 1.6/5 (-16 percent)

No. 6 in households, total viewers, adults 18-34



Growth last year was a given thanks to the healthy WWF Smackdown! and the arrival of Enterprise and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Even a declining Buffy was enough to ignite UPN’s dead-in-the water Tuesday line-up in 2001-02. But with Buffy calling it quits, Enterprise not holding up as well as its predecessors and 4-year-old Smackdown! showing signs of wear and tear, the future is uncertain.

While Monday remains consistent, every other night of the week has seen double-digit erosion. “UPN must recognize its strengths and eliminate the weaknesses,” says Rash. “Instead of programming the network to a different target audience every night, they need to take what works and spread that theme elsewhere. If they can unify the nights, they’ll have a better promotional platform to work with.” Marc Berman is a senior editor at Mediaweek who writes the daily Programming Insider newsletter.