overthinking the idiot box

April 10, 2006

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

Behind the Screens
There Is No Right Way to Schedule a Network

by Michael Adams

People turned on their TV sets in droves, more than 70 million people in fact. What brought so many viewers to their sets at the same time? The Super Bowl? The Academy Awards? Nope. It was a combination of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, Fox's American Idol, CBS's Survivor, and NBC's Olympics coverage of the ladies' figure skating finals.
In 1989, the movie Field of Dreams taught us that if you build it, they will come. With a little paraphrasing, this could be applied to the network television game — if you show it, they might watch. To that end, an interesting thing happened on February 23, 2006. People turned on their TV sets in droves, more than 70 million people in fact. What brought so many viewers to their sets at the same time? The Super Bowl? The Academy Awards? Nope. It was a combination of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, Fox's American Idol, CBS's Survivor, and NBC's Olympics coverage of the ladies' figure skating finals. It was perhaps the single most competitive night network television has ever seen. Conventional wisdom dictates that four shows cannot successfully attract an audience in the same time period, but that wisdom was summarily disproved over the course of one hour on this fateful sweeps Thursday. (It should be noted that all four shows were unscripted and therefore require less of a viewer commitment than a scripted series would.) This is the most extreme example of high-interest programming going head-to-head in a season that has produced several other heated time slot battles.

Normally, as a season progresses, tough time slots will work themselves out, with shows being moved out of the path of a more dominant foe as the networks realize that there simply isn't enough love to go around. This year, though, the competition has been more cutthroat and the networks have stood firm in their decisions to pit hit shows against each other. The Tuesday 9pm slot has been a particular logjam for most of this season. It started in September with six buzzworthy shows in the mix: ABC's Commander in Chief, NBC's My Name Is Earl and The Office, CBS's The Amazing Race, Fox's House, and The WB's Supernatural (UPN's Sex, Love & Secrets never stood a chance). The general consensus was that something would have to give in this time slot; there simply was no way that a five-way competition could produce winners all around. Astonishingly, though, each show was able to carve out its own niche, with Commander and House being the only two that were really targeting the same female audience.

Despite the shared success in the time slot, it still seemed like at some point in the season, adjustments would be made to spread the wealth to other nights. NBC did move its pair of sitcoms to Thursday in an attempt to reestablish a comedy beachhead on the night, but then turned the Tuesday hour over to the returning Scrubs. CBS bumped Race to 10pm (it's since been shifted again, to Wednesday at 8pm), and put The Unit in its place, only to see the military drama actually build on its already huge NCIS lead-in. ABC replaced Commander with Sons & Daughters, not exactly a ratings success, but a must-see show for any true television fan (sadly, it will be sent away to make room for a second weekly helping of Hope & Faith and the resurrection of Less Than Perfect). All this is in addition to The WB's newly introduced Pepper Dennis and UPN's truly boneheaded move of Veronica Mars to a night where it will no longer be able to reap whatever benefits were provided by leading out of new episodes of America's Next Top Model. Keep in mind that we're still talking about just one time period here!

While quality is always a debatable topic, the quantity and promotional force of all of these shows residing in the same time slot is nearly unprecedented. Which leads to the question, Why put so many eggs in one basket? The answer: the networks are, quite frankly, just doing their job. Many of the decisions made in this Tuesday time slot can be looked at as true examples of counterprogramming, an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Look no further than the current Wednesday 10pm battle between three crime shows (CBS's CSI: NY, ABC's The Evidence, and NBC's Law & Order) to see that the networks often make the mistake of going after the same audience in the same time slot. This Wednesday misstep left ABC with lower ratings than Invasion was delivering on nights when it followed an original episode of Lost, and cost NBC viewers when it moved Law & Order up an hour before moving it back two weeks later. But in the Tuesday-at-9 time slot, there have been distinct programming options made available to different demographics for much of the season. These options, and the various types of audience members that they attract, make it possible for the networks to program the way they should, as if they actually wanted people to watch. True, it may not always be convenient for the viewer, but then again, allowing us to watch everything that's being broadcast isn't necessarily their concern. With syndication, cable, DVD, and iTunes providing more chances than ever to catch with what was missed, the networks no longer have to worry as much about keeping any single time slot from becoming too jam-packed. It's a business practice that can work for and against us: the more they program, the more we watch, the more money they make, the more they have to spend on good shows that will more than likely end up competing against each other in the same time slot.

What makes this practice more than a little frustrating for the viewer is the fact that so many time slots have so few shows worth watching. Look just one hour earlier on Tuesday night and you won't find much to watch if you're not a fan of the screeching histrionics of American Idol. With the exception of NCIS and The WB's Gilmore Girls, the networks have filled the time period with inane sitcoms and repeats, too afraid to take on the mighty behemoth that is the yearly karaoke competition. Which takes us back to that Thursday in February, where four shows successfully coexisted in a time slot that included American Idol. One can only hope that the networks take this as a sign that there is an audience outside of Ryan Seacrest's demographic, one that doesn't care who wins this contest, but also doesn't care what life is like According to Jim. (Not coincidentally, the networks schedule more aggressively against Idol's half-hour Wednesday results show, when they know that viewers will head elsewhere at 9:30, giving hour-long shows like ABC's Lost and CBS's Criminal Minds ratings spikes in their second half-hours.)

Do not kneel to our pop music overlords. Please.
So, as the networks bunker down and prepare to put together their fall schedules (upfront presentations begin May 15), what words of advice can be offered to convince them to make things a little bit easier on the viewer? Don't lie down in front of American Idol; someday it will be beaten, but not if you continue to put some of your weakest product against it. Don't clog a time slot so much that you make viewers choose between too many new shows and returning favorites; the veteran will almost always succeed, leaving the new guy to settle for leftovers. Do remember that there are still viable options for Friday and Saturday night; with enough promotion, a second- or third-year hit could be effectively transplanted to one of these more barren evenings. And finally, imagine for a moment that you aren't the ones making the schedule and put yourself in the position of the viewer, forced to choose whether to stick with a beloved program or sample a new show. How would that make you feel? Overwhelmed, annoyed, maybe a little angry? Are these feelings that you want to inspire in your viewers? It's okay to be competitive, but try to keep things in perspective. Take a minute to consider how you might make things less complicated for the people who keep you in business. After all, TV just shouldn't be this hard to watch.

Email the author.

Return to Season 2, Episode 14.