Upfront 2004 – The Advertisers: Network Report Card

The Big Four broadcast networks—CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC—cumulatively, have had a much better season than they have been credited for, says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, News and Cable Group. Season-to-date, Zucker points out, the 18-49 rating for the Big Four is down 5 percent now, but he says that when the season ends following the May sweeps, ratings in that advertiser-desired demo will be down only a percent or two.

“There’s no question that ABC and the WB have had difficult years,” he says. “But at the Big Four networks, viewership is only down 3 percent.” And he is predicting that when ratings for the Friends and Frasier finales, along with the finales of some of the other network hits, like CSI on CBS, are added in, “total viewership on the Big Four will be higher than last year.”

Agreeing with Zucker, CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves says it is just harder for the broadcast networks to get that message out, because the broadcasters, unlike cable, as a result of federal antitrust laws, cannot do cumulative ad pitches.

But all is not as positive as the broadcast network executives see it. As more and more cable networks are added to systems around the country, broadcast network viewership and ratings will continue their slow erosion. To try to combat that in the minds of the media buyers, each broadcast network, including the smaller WB and UPN, will individually continue to make their arguments that immediate maximum reach in one broadcast commercial spot is more desirable to advertisers than reaching a similar sized audience on cable in several spots over several nights.

Media buyers, for the most part, continue to buy into the immediate maximum reach argument, but say that at some point, the hefty price that they are being charged for that audience might reach the breaking point, making it easier for them to move client dollars into cable or other, more reasonably priced, media.

According to Nielsen Media Research data, the Big Four broadcast networks combined viewership season-to-date is 43.1 million, compared to 44.4 million last season, down 3 percent. Adding the WB and UPN into the mix, that number grows to 49.1 million this season, compared to 52 million last season, down 5 percent.

CBS has by far had the best season from a ratings standpoint, growing 4 percent in households to an 8.5, up 6 percent in viewers to 13.2 million, and flat in adults 18-49 at a 3.9. CBS is the leader among all networks in household ratings and viewers, while NBC, despite being down 7 percent in 18-49, is still the leader in that demo with a 4.2. While NBC’s Zucker continues to argue that advertisers desire 18-49 viewers most, and that is where NBC is strongest, Moonves says CBS’ lead in total viewers makes it more desirable. In the viewer area, CBS has increased its lead over NBC from about 900,000 viewers last season to a whopping 2.3 million this season.

Here is a network-by-network breakdown of where they stand as they get ready to unveil their development for next season.

Households: 8.5 rating/14 share (+ 4 percent)

Total viewers: 13.2 million (+ 6 percent)

Adults 18-49: 3.9/11 (no change)

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

CBS added four new series—dramas Cold Case, Joan of Arcadia and Navy NCIS, and sitcom Two and a Half Men—to its already stable prime-time schedule this season, leaving the network with only a few holes to fill. With Everybody Loves Raymond expected back for its ninth season to anchor the Monday night sitcom block, CBS will probably drop in a new sitcom behind it at 9:30 p.m. (where it launched Two and a Half Men this season), and will move one of its other Monday comedies to Wednesday, pairing it with King of Queens from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. With the failure of mid-season drama Century City to catch on, middle-of-the pack rated The Guardian will probably return on Tuesdays at 9, meaning that night will return intact (with NCIS at 8 and Judging Amy at 10). Blockbuster Thursday and solid Sunday will also return unchanged. Other than launching a new sitcom on Monday, CBS has holes to fill at 10 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, where it will put new dramas. The marginally performing Saturday night drama Hack will probably also be replaced.

Media agencies like CBS’ stable schedule. “Stability of schedule gives us a lot more confidence that the shows we buy in the upfront and the ratings estimates we base our buying on will hold true all season,” says Lyle Schwartz, managing partner of research at mediaedge: cia. “It’s important for viewers to know when the shows they want to see are on.”

Households: 7.2 rating/12 share (— 6 percent)

Total viewers: 10.9 million (— 7 percent)

Adults 18-49: 4.2/12 (— 7 percent)

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

NBC had another poor fall development season, with only one new show, the Monday night drama Las Vegas, a hit. But NBC’s season was saved by the success of its new (Average Joe and The Apprentice) and returning (Fear Factor) reality shows, the mid-season return of last season’s solid drama Crossing Jordan, which was on hiatus while star Jill Hennessy had a baby, and its moving of Third Watch from Monday night at 10 p.m., where it was getting steadily beaten in the ratings by CBS’ CSI Miami, to Friday at 10 p.m. where it filled a void when its own Boomtown and CBS’ The Handler failed.

NBC will return its Monday schedule next fall intact with two of its successful reality shows, Fear Factor and Average Joe, leading into and out of 9 p.m. Las Vegas. NBC will also return its current Sunday night lineup and continue its practice this season of airing movies and repeats of its hot reality shows and episodes from its various Law and Order series on Saturday night. Zucker is also toying with the idea of leaving the current Friday lineup the same, airing a two-hour Dateline, followed by Third Watch. He could also air an hour-long Dateline at 8, move Third Watch to 9 and air the new Law & Order 4: Trial by Jury at 10 p.m. On Thursday, the network is committed to replacing Friends with spinoff Joey at 8, may keep Will & Grace at 8:30, return The Apprentice at 9 and ER at 10.

NBC also has a hole at 8 p.m. on Wednesday and two hours on Tuesday night to fill. NBC developed 14 sitcoms for next season, so some of them can go in those time slots. Media buyers do not believe Joey will perform as well as Friends, and that The Apprentice viewership could be adversely impacted if Donald Trump has to file for real-life bankruptcy to protect his money-losing Atlantic City casinos.

Households: 6.0 rating/10 share (— 6 percent)

Total viewers: 9.1 million (— 9 percent)

Adults 18-49: 3.3/9 (— 13 percent)

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

ABC needs dramas badly, particularly at 10 p.m., as lead-ins to its affiliates’ local newscasts. The 10 p.m. time period was a poor one for CBS in the not-so-distant past, but in the last three years, that network has shored up that hour nicely. ABC needs to do the same. It will return only two dramas next season, Alias and NYPD Blue, to its entire prime-time schedule. Adding to the network’s problems is that while it has 11 sitcoms, and several do solid 18-49 ratings, none can be considered a breakout hit, and at least a few of those will not return, adding more holes to the schedule. Compounding things further is that Barbara Walters will be leaving as longtime host of the network’s solid prime-time newsmagazine, 20/20.

ABC has still not come up with successful replacement shows for Monday Night Football, after it leaves the air in late December each season, and it has not increased its audience for The Wonderful World of Disney by moving it from Sunday to Saturday night this season. Further compounding the network’s unsettled situation was the departures last week of Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun and Entertainment president Susan Lyne. They were responsible for the programming development that has now been handed off to new Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson. Before she left, Lyne said she wanted to start next season with 12 or 13 sitcoms, and wanted to do more dramas targeting woman. It remains to be seen what McPherson’s strategy will be. ABC may have to fill as much as seven hours with new programming next season, which means the network is going to be rebuilding for several years to come. One slight positive in the entertainment division transition: A sizable portion of the programming developed by Lyne and Braun for ABC for next season comes from Touchstone Television, the Disney division that McPherson headed before moving over to ABC.

Households: 6.1 rating/10 share (+ 2 percent)

Total viewers: 9.7 million (— 1 percent)

Adults 18-49: 4.0/11 (— 5 percent)

No. 3 in households and total viewers; No. 2 among adults 18-49

Fox’s successful summer launch of its new drama The O.C. last August emboldened the network to expand that strategy to this coming summer, where it will premiere four new scripted series beginning in June: dramas The Jury and North Shore, and sitcoms Quintuplets and Method & Red. Entertainment president Gail Berman’s strategy will be to air first-run episodes throughout the summer of these series, and to also air each one during the same week on other nights in repeat, to try to get each maximum exposure.

Fox was once again hurt this season because it had to displace almost an entire month of October prime-time scripted programming to air coverage of the Major League Baseball postseason games. Berman is hoping that starting Fox’s fall schedule in June will hook viewers through the summer and make it easier for those shows to leave the air for four weeks in October and still get the audiences back when they return.

Other than The O.C., Fox also did not have much in the way of solid new programming this season, but its soft ratings have been masked by the resounding success of American Idol. Pairing Idol on Tuesday with drama 24 and on Wednesday with The O.C. have made those nights the network’s best in the ratings.

Saturday and Sunday are solid, but the network has to virtually start from scratch on Monday, Thursday and Friday. If the summer premieres work, though, Fox could be in good shape next season.

Households: 2.4 rating/4 share (- 8 percent)

Total viewers: 3.6 million (- 10 percent)

Adults 18-49: 1.5/4 (- 17 percent)

No. 5 in households, tied for No. 5 in total viewers; No. 5 among adults 18-49

The WB, long the darling of the media buying community, is struggling through one of its worst seasons in several years. Its move to make Thursday and Friday comedy nights failed miserably. Its new Sunday drama, Tarzan, was canceled after just a few weeks. And its other new drama, One Tree Hill, took months to finally get an audience, but it looks like it could be a keeper.

The WB will have lots of holes to fill next season. Long-running drama Angel is leaving, and so will some of its comedies. Veteran drama Gilmore Girls lost a chunk of its audience this year. The network does have some positives. 7th Heaven, now in its eighth season, is still pulling in solid ratings, and other veteran dramas Charmed, Smallville and Everwood, and sitcom Reba, still pull in strong audiences.

WB co-CEO Jordan Levin is contemplating moving sitcoms to lead off a few nights, following them with dramas, rather than keeping them on exclusive comedy nights. Media buyers warn, however, that the network should not break up Monday night (7th Heaven and Everwood) or Tuesday (Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill). Levin could move Smallville to 9 p.m. on Wednesday and add two comedies from 8 to 9 p.m. there, but comedies have not traditionally worked well for the network on Sunday. So, Levin may have no choice but to put comedies on Thursday or Friday again, or, maybe do what the WB has traditionally done best: more dramas.

Households: 2.3 rating/4 share (no change)

Total viewers: 3.4 million (— 3 percent)

Adults 18-49: 1.4/4 (— 7 percent)

No. 6 in households, tied for 5th in total viewers; 6th among adults 18-49

UPN did this season what media buyers have been suggesting for a while: expand its ethnic comedy block from Monday to Tuesday night.

UPN added one new comedy, Eve, to its Monday block, moved One on One to lead off Tuesday, and added a second new sitcom, All of Us, to Tuesday night. Eve, starring the hip-hop recording artist of the same name, and All of Us, produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and loosely based on their lives, added some star power to the network. Then the network returned from last spring the reality show America’s Next Top Model, hosted by Tyra Banks, to Tuesday nights at 9, and it became a breakout hit for the network.

UPN has some decisions to make for next season. Most buyers would like to see it expand its ethnic block to Wednesday, and the UPN has two dramas that would fit there nicely, one starring Vanessa Williams and the other starring Taye Diggs. That would mean if the network wants to bring back fading sci-fi drama Enterprise, it would have to move it to Friday night (since WWE Smackdown is a fixture on Thursdays).

Media buyers believe moving Enterprise to Friday night might not be a bad move. Although Friday night is a low viewing night, Enterprise draws a loyal audience, most of which comes to the network for only that show. Adding a second hour of sci-fi on Friday could work. And a sci-fi hour there could not perform worse than this season’s Friday movie, which more often than not, produced cable-sized ratings.

John Consoli is a senior editor at Mediaweek.