Fox ties ABC: Unscripted shows helped the major networks to slow ratings erosion.

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May 23, 2003 by Brian Lowry

ABC-TV: The Place to be this FallA strong finishing kick from "American Idol" propelled Fox to an unprecedented tie with one of its elders, ABC, in this season's ratings race -- a milestone for the network, which introduced its first prime-time lineup in 1987.

Fox's explosive performance with unscripted fare -- Nielsen data indicate 34.2 million people watched Wednesday's "American Idol" at any given moment, up 50% from the 22.8 million for the first "Idol" finale in September -- lifted the network to equal ABC, with both averaging 10 million viewers in prime time this season. That's both a breakthrough for mogul Rupert Murdoch's network as well as another setback for ABC -- a fourth-place finisher in May whose management at the Walt Disney Co. once pledged to affiliated stations that finishing third in sweeps (periods that stations rely upon to set ad rates) was unacceptable.

Fox officials were more enthusiastic about their first-place sweeps standing among key demographics (repeating a similar feat in February) as well as their close-second status behind NBC by that yardstick this season. Although overall viewing provides a cultural barometer, advertisers focus almost exclusively on adults under 50, making that demographic the currency networks use to negotiate ad time.

For all the debate about so-called reality TV, this season's ratings reflect its principal contribution to broadcasters: helping the major networks slow ratings erosion as competitors nibble at their audience.

Aided by such fare as "Survivor" and "The Bachelor," the four major networks averaged more than 44 million viewers during prime time this season -- a mere 1% decline versus last year, when NBC's tally was significantly increased by the Winter Olympics, the kind of event that lures hard-to-reach viewers back to broadcast television.

Staged reality shows, including Fox's "American Idol" and "Joe Millionaire," approximated that effect, with the latter's finale attracting a bigger audience than the war-plagued Academy Awards. That kind of arithmetic inspires even rival executives to hail those shows as a symbol of broadcasting's unique ability to aggregate vast audiences -- something cable channels seldom accomplish.

"The reality shows prove once again that nothing works like the network pipes," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker in one of several end-of-season conference calls as networks put the best spin on their results.

After all the hoopla that has surrounded such cable programs as HBO's "The Sopranos," MTV's "The Osbournes" (whose ratings diminished sharply this year) and FX's "The Shield," unscripted programs again made network shows the center of conversation -- not that all reality shows succeeded. ABC and Fox -- which embraced the reality boom most enthusiastically -- struck out with a volley of midseason replacements, including "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People" and "Married by America," respectively.

"The cream has risen to the top ... [and] some of the garbage has fallen by the wayside," said CBS Television Chairman Leslie Moonves, whose network continued to score well with its ongoing "Survivor" franchise.

The networks' minimal loss of viewers is impressive given the forces pulling against them, with the average household -- thanks to cable and satellite dishes -- now receiving nearly 100 channels. Although cable viewing has surpassed the broadcast networks, the shift is based largely on sheer tonnage, as niche networks expand distribution and whittle away at the viewing pie.

To borrow Zucker's phrase, some of the "pipes" worked better than others.

CBS will finish the season and the May sweeps as the most-watched network, averaging 12.6 million viewers. Perhaps most significantly, the network actually topped NBC's Thursday lineup -- which has ruled that night for nearly two decades -- with "Survivor," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (TV's top-rated program) and the new drama "Without a Trace."

Because a disproportionate share of CBS' audience is over 65, NBC remains the champion that night and for the TV season among adults 18 to 49, averaging 11.6 million viewers overall; still, even its demographic crowns could be in jeopardy, with "Friends" heading into its final season, an aging "Frasier" and "The West Wing" losing more than a quarter of its 2001-02 ratings altitude.

Whatever problems NBC faces, however, pale next to ABC, whose modest year-to-year gain was attributable to broadcasting the Super Bowl, which CBS will carry in 2004. Despite establishing inroads with "
8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and "The Bachelor," that dating show and "Monday Night Football" were the only ABC offerings to rank among the top 30 in overall viewing.

ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun insisted the network has "stopped the bleeding" after a steep 20% decline last season, but its competitive standing doesn't provide much solace for affiliated stations lamenting a tailspin that began when the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" bubble burst.

ABC did tie CBS in key demographics for the season, but without the Super Bowl the network faces the real prospect of a fourth-place finish next season.

If there is room for optimism at ABC, it resides in the fact that viewing cycles can change quickly, as the twin tent poles of "Joe Millionaire" and "Idol" propped up a Fox lineup that looked moribund last fall. Even Fox is concerned about tapping the well too often -- one reason the next "American Idol" competition won't begin till January, with a junior edition taking its place until then. "We're trying to manage the asset as effectively and intelligently as we possibly can," said Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow.

In addition to Fox, the season's biggest gains belong to the WB network, which increased its audience by 8% to 4.1 million viewers, passing UPN, which averaged 3.5 million. (The WB is part-owned by Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.)

Despite cable's net growth, only two basic networks, TNT and Nickelodeon, averaged over 2 million viewers in prime time. Fox News Channel -- infused in part by its dramatically higher ratings during the run-up to and prosecution of war in Iraq -- placed third, at 1.9 million.

USA, Lifetime, TBS, the Disney Channel, ESPN, Cartoon Network and CNN round out the Top 10. Notably, the four AOL Time Warner networks (TNT, TBS, Cartoon and CNN) amassed 7 million viewers nightly.

Having largely been left for dead, meanwhile, the made-for-television movie exhibited signs of life this spring. Productions such as NBC's Martha Stewart biography and CBS' "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation "A Painted House" scored strong ratings, with respectable tune-in for the miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil" as well.

"The movie of the week has had a comeback this year, especially in May," Moonves said.