overthinking the idiot box

October 31, 2005

Dudes in suits, ratings games, scheduling dances — all of the real drama happens...

Behind the Screens
CSI: Nielson

Figuring Out the New Season's Ratings Mysteries
by Michael Adams

Head Cases, the network's sacrificial lamb in the Wednesday 9pm timeslot, was as lost on the primetime schedule as its competition's characters are on that island.
The breakout hits of the 2005-06 season look eerily familiar to last year's breakout hits, only bigger. Desperate Housewives and Lost, two shows that garnered so much attention last year that it seemed as if a sophomore season backlash would be inevitable, have bucked industry trends and are actually attracting more viewers than they did last year at this time. The series are currently placed at Nos. 2 and 3, with respective audiences of 26.5 million and 22.4 million viewers. On the flip side, the new season was only four days old when Fox issued the first death warrant. Head Cases, the network's sacrificial lamb in the Wednesday 9pm timeslot, was as lost on the primetime schedule as its competition's characters are on that island. Since then, three more series have fallen prey to the Nielsen trap: NBC's Inconceivable, The WB's Just Legal, and UPN's Sex, Love & Secrets (in an odd twist, UPN continued to air the series for several weeks despite the fact that production was shut down immediately after the series premiered in last place among 112 shows for the week). Now more than a month into the new season, what have the networks done wrong and what have they gotten right? The answers are in the numbers.

2.5 Men and a whole lot of women
CBS has a case of the Mondays
For CBS, the word of the day is "disappointing." Apparently it takes more than Two and a Half Men to add up to one Raymond. While the third-year sitcom is competitive in the 9pm timeslot, it is down 2.5 million viewers from what Everybody Loves Raymond did at this time last year, and has also lost 1.6 million from its own 2004-05 season average. The network's new hammock shows, How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice, are also failing to live up to expectations. Early buzz on Mother indicated that it could be the fall's big comedy, but the show is doing no better than last season's abysmal Jason Alexander sitcom Listen Up. Practice loses 18% of its Two and a Half Men lead-in, hurting CSI: Miami, which is down 14% from last year. The CBS lineup, however, remains relatively healthy compared to other networks' comedies over the past few seasons.

Quick Fix: Get rid of Out of Practice. Mother feels like more of a 9:30 show and is more compatible with Two and a Half Men than its current lead-in The King of Queens.

The "What the Hell Were They Thinking?" Award
The powers that be at Fox get the year's most coveted trophy for their boneheaded decision to have Arrested Development anchor Monday night. The logic behind this move is just astounding: take a show that has struggled to find an audience for two years on Sunday night and move it to a night where the network has no track record of sitcom success. Oh, and to top it off, let's pair it with Kitchen Confidential, a brand-new show that we have absolutely no intention of promoting. Not surprisingly, the risk didn't pay off. Arrested has lost nearly a third of its audience from last year (5.9 mil to 4.3), when it followed The Simpsons, and Confidential drops even further, attracting just four million viewers. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Fox's baseball commitment forced both shows off the air for more than a month. At this rate, Arrested Development may not be the best show nobody's watching for much longer. On the plus side, Prison Break, which was initially considered to be nothing more than a placeholder until 24's return in January, has given the network some traction at 9pm, drawing an average audience of 8.7 million viewers and earning a full-season pickup.

Quick Fix: Get Arrested back to Sunday—STAT! The show is a much smarter companion to The Simpsons than the dreadful The War at Home (an unfortunate full-season recipient), and watching it die on Monday is just plain painful.

Sci-Fi, Schmi-Fi
ABC's Night Stalker, though, will be lucky to see the end of November sweeps; while its ratings are higher than last year's timeslot entry life as we know it (a low bar, to say the least), it loses 1.7 million viewers from its already limited Alias lead-in.
TV can always be relied on to mimic a trend. Thanks to Lost (which, based on what we've been shown so far, I wouldn't even necessarily classify as science-fiction), the networks' fall schedules were inundated with otherworldly fare. Surface, predicted to be among the new season's biggest failures, has actually shown potential. Leveling off to around ten million viewers after a slightly stronger debut, the sea-monster series gives NBC a modest but consistent way to start the night. (The series has been picked up for "additional episodes," with NBC declining to specify an exact amount.) ABC's Night Stalker, though, will be lucky to see the end of November sweeps; while its ratings are higher than last year's timeslot entry life as we know it (a low bar, to say the least), it loses 1.7 million viewers from its already limited Alias lead-in. Invasion is also improving on year-ago time period numbers, though it loses nearly half of the massive audience that tunes in for Lost. Even so, the series has given the network the boost that recent dramas such as Karen Sisco, Eyes, and MDs could not. Over at CBS, two-thirds of its Friday lineup has been handed over to exploring strange phenomena, with somewhat mixed results. Ghost Whisperer brings in 10.8 million viewers, a steep 28% increase from Joan of Arcadia's performance last season, while Threshold is down from JAG but still manages to deliver an amazingly consistent eight million viewers. Supernatural, a seemingly imperfect fit with The WB's Gilmore Girls, has acquitted itself nicely, drawing more than five million viewers in what could arguably be the toughest time slot in all of TV (see below).

Quick Fix: There is no dominant show on Wednesday at 8pm. ABC should move Invasion there (this is where Lost became a hit last year, after all), put George Lopez and Freddie on Friday night, and move Supernanny to Wednesday at 10pm, where it will provide an alternative to dramatic fare on the other networks.

Five Networks, Six Shows Worth Watching, Just One Me
In this day and age, the idea of having more than one successful show in any given time period is almost a contradiction in terms. This year, however, the Tuesday 9pm timeslot has delivered strong results for five series, with four of them placing in the top 30 among all shows. The biggest hit in the group is ABC's Commander in Chief, which brings in 16.5 million patriotic supporters. The show's major competition is Fox's House, which, thanks to baseball, has had just one head-to-head battle with the presidential drama and finished a strong second, just 3 million viewers behind. The Amazing Race gives CBS a lift among the younger crowd, placing third in the 18-49 demo and remaining on par with year-ago levels despite the creatively lackluster family edition. NBC finally has a sitcom worth talking about again as early critical buzz coupled with its' placement as the only comedy in the time period have allowed My Name Is Earl to draw a sizable audience of almost 13 million viewers. Unfortunately for the equally hysterical The Office, those viewers don't stick around at 9:30; the BBC remake loses 40% of its lead-in. Add in Supernatural and the networks have created a true counter-programming experience.

Quick Fix: Good news for the networks does not always translate into good news for fans. With so many time periods available elsewhere, this Tuesday glut is frustrating and needless. ABC could bump Extreme Makeover: Home Edition up an hour and put Commander in Chief at 8pm Sundays, making for a powerful dramatic triumvirate (not to mention an interesting showdown between NBC's lame duck The West Wing and America's first female president). CBS would likely get better results in the Wednesday lead-off slot if it were to dump sitcoms Still Standing and Yes, Dear and move The Amazing Race there.

Second (and Third) Verse Same as the First
Several returning shows continue to perform admirably, with some even eclipsing their already terrific ratings from last year. CBS's procedurals keep on shining, with NCIS particularly deserving of kudos. The little show that could has grown each of its three years on the air and recently set a series-record with more than 17 million viewers tuning in. Numb3rs draws a respectable audience in a thankless Friday timeslot, and Cold Case weathers early-season football overruns with aplomb; the show has had to do battle with Desperate Housewives on more than one occasion, placing a competitive second when they go head-to-head and winning its timeslot when it airs in its regular 8pm home. NBC's Las Vegas continues to perform at 9pm, quietly drawing 12.9 million viewers and providing an excellent lead-in for second-season drama Medium, still strong despite the addition of football competition (the series premiered last January, after football had finished for the season). Boston Legal has handled its move away from Desperate Housewives very well, virtually equaling its ratings from the same period last year while improving on ABC's numbers from NYPD Blue in both total viewers and adults 18-49. And increased viewership for the ladies of Wisteria Lane has been a boon for Grey's Anatomy as well; the medical drama is now treating an extra million patients compared to last season's already impressive average of 17 million viewers.

Quick Fix: ABC would be wise to move Anatomy to another night while the show is at its peak. This might be the show that finally gives the Alphabet net some relief on Thursday opposite CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Did You Use "UPN" and "Success" in the Same Sentence?
The headlines couldn't have been more eager: UPN TAKES DOWN MUST-SEE TV!! In their first showdown, Everybody Hates Chris topped the Peacock's woeful Joey in their common half-hour (Joey had a one-hour season premiere), with Chris Rock's sitcom racking up UPN's biggest comedy audience in the history of the network. Chris has since settled in comfortably, attracting an average 6.3 million viewers. (Unfortunately, the network bleeds viewers in each successive half-hour, capping off the night with just 2.7 million people watching Cuts.) UPN has also experienced an uptick for the critically enamored but little seen Veronica Mars. The teenage PI drama is up 17% from last season and is getting better ratings than former time period occupant Kevin Hill. The show still suffers a rather steep drop-off from its America's Next Top Model lead-in (4.9 mil to 3.0 mil), but baby steps are enough to keep UPN from pulling the plug on this underwatched gem.

Quick Fix: Send the abysmal Love, Inc. packing, and bring in Girlfriends, UPN's highest-rated Monday comedy, to try to prevent some of the audience from leaving so quickly after Chris's credits roll.

Reality Gets a Dose of Reality
As with all TV trends, success can only last for so long. This year, both new and old entries in the reality genre are finding it more difficult to secure an audience. NBC's well-intentioned tearjerker Three Wishes and ABC's Supernanny are having a tough time on Friday night, attracting 6.0 and 7.5 million viewers, respectively. The Biggest Loser (NBC) is down 25% compared to its first edition last fall, and ABC's Wife Swap has lost close to 2 million viewers since last season. The Apprentice has taken a double-digit dive and the unnecessary Martha Stewart spinoff averages just 6.6 million viewers, easily being trumped by the competition. Even the granddaddy of them all has suffered year-to-year erosion. Last season, Survivor's two installments (Vanuatu and Palau) averaged 2.7 million more viewers than the current Guatemala edition. Only The Amazing Race and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition seem impervious to the backlash (for now). Maybe we just don't find regular folks as interesting as we used to.

Quick Fix: Stop using reality as filler. These shows are, with few exceptions, a dime a dozen now. Networks need to take the time to develop them as they would a new drama or comedy, and only put the cream of the crop on the air. (That means no more dating shows, people!)

Television ratings are impossible to predict. It's hard to believe that when 7th Heaven premiered in 1996, it was ranked exactly where UPN's Sex, Love & Secrets sits this year—dead last. What a difference a little patience makes. But with competition constantly becoming more fierce, TV is now nearly identical to the movie biz; if a show doesn't make its mark immediately, it's bye-bye forever. Is the system flawed? Maybe. But execs can sleep tight at night safe in the knowledge that numbers don't lie.

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