Analysis: Big Four networks stake out key battlegrounds

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In a season as competitive as 2005-06, every time slot counted in the prime-time ratings race. The 2006-07 season will be no exception.

The competition for the biggest audience in the key demographic of adults 18-49 has come down to the wire in recent years, with Fox, CBS, ABC, and NBC often separated by less than a ratings point.

"Given the strength of our competitors, there's no good night on TV to schedule," said Peter Liguori, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Co. "Every night of the week there's a daunting piece of programming you don't want to go up against."

So consider each half-hour on the prime-time grid a trench where the Big Four and the nascent CW go to war. And like any battleground, there are several hot spots worth noting where the combat could get intense, based on how the broadcast networks performed in the season that concluded Wednesday and the scheduling moves announced last week for the 2006-07 campaign.

10 P.M. SUNDAY

There may not be a time slot on the schedule that will undergo more dramatic change than this one. All three players--CBS, NBC, and ABC (Fox and CW do not program the 10 p.m. hour)--are making big shifts.

NBC set the stage early with its blockbuster deal to bring NFL football to the night, replacing an entire night where it was running fourth among the broadcasters with a 3.4 average rating in adults 18-49, which marked a 16 percent drop from the 2004-05 season. Its 10 p.m. entry, Crossing Jordan, with an average 3.3 rating/8 share in adults 18-49, actually did respectably in that time slot given stiff competition but will now become a midseason player.

With Desperate Housewives ranking as the highest-rated scripted series in 18-49 (9.3/20), ABC is betting that it can move the equally hot Grey's Anatomy (8.9/21) to Thursday and launch a new series, Brothers & Sisters, in its place. With top actresses Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths in the cast, Brothers could fill in nicely on the night.

"We feel that Desperate is getting stronger than ever and can help launch some new shows there," ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson said earlier this month.

But CBS also is trying something radical Sunday, removing its lagging CBS Sunday Night Movie franchise (2.7/6) for the first time in 21 years and stacking Cold Case in its place with Thursday transplant Without a Trace (5.8/15). Trace was strong enough to wear down NBC's ER (5.2/14) on Thursday, and CBS hopes it will rebound sharply on the night.

"There's going to be an opportunity for growth," CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves said. "It's a night we're going to be up considerably."

Football allows NBC to be an instant player on the night, particularly among the men ABC's female-skewing series aren't serving. It also takes the pressure off to figure out the rest of its schedule and concentrate its programming efforts to just five nights.

8 P.M. THURSDAY

Once the cradle of power for NBC's 20-year reign of the night, the hour is becoming a free-for-all. CBS still has a firm lead for the whole night in 18-49, with a 6.4 rating well ahead of second-place NBC (4.5). But CBS also is down on the night from the previous season by 9 percent, and its 8 p.m. warhorse Survivor is a big reason why.

The island-based reality series is still the envy of any schedule, averaging a 6.2/19 over its two cycles in the 2005-06 season. But that average is down 19 percent from the previous season, and the show has ticked down steadily over its last three cycles, with 2004-05's Survivor: Palau registering a 7.7/21 compared with the most recent, Panama, at 5.8/16.

"Survivor is still a top 18-49 performer," said Kelly Kahl, CBS's executive vice president of programming planning. "It's got plenty of kick left."

NBC and ABC started the season at 8 p.m. with poor performers--Joey and Alias, respectively--but soon switched in more competent competitors, Dancing With the Stars, which returned in fine form averaging a 5.0/13, and Will & Grace (3.6/10). Lagging more so was Fox, with a combination of The O.C. (2.6/7) and That '70s Show (2.7/8).

Despite considerable preseason buzz, UPN's Everybody Hates Chris (1.7/5) finished out its first season with lukewarm numbers, while WB Network impressed with the resilience of Smallville (2.0/6), which moved from Wednesday. (Smallville and O.C. did better in 18-34, the former strong among males.)

Heading into 2006-07, Thursday at 8 p.m. is only going to get more heated. While CBS is standing firm with Survivor, pledging two more cycles, NBC may mount a challenge by taking its strongest comedies, My Name Is Earl (4.9/12) and The Office (4.0/10), into the hour.

Interestingly, ABC chose to move Dancing to Tuesday and experiment with a new comedy block in the hour, Big Day and Notes From the Underbelly. Fox has a fresh comedy block of its own, placing its biggest bet in the genre, 'Til Death, starring Everybody Loves Raymond alumnus Brad Garrett, along with Happy Hour.

"When I look at Thursday night and realize fully we're going up against an hour of comedy on ABC and NBC, our bet is twofold," Fox's Liguori said. "We have tremendous faith in these shows, and secondly, with Til Death we have a tried-and-true comedy star at the center of it."

Hour, Day, and Underbelly all feature ensemble casts of attractive urban thirtysomethings, a nod to a similar show that once notched massive numbers Thursday at 8 p.m.: NBC's Friends.

"I think everyone is looking for that big, breakout comedy hit," CBS's Kahl said. "It's going to be a genre-defying show that stands out from the crowd and breaks the mold that will really makes itself heard."

The CW knows a good thing while it has it, keeping WB's Smallville (2.0/6) in place.

9 P.M. MONDAY

Television's most popular comedy, Two and a Half Men (5.0/12), went through more companions than its lothario character played by Charlie Sheen before settling on The New Adventures of Old Christine (4.1/9) in the 9:30 p.m. slot. As comedy blocks go, it's relatively strong, but CBS is still not as powerful on the night as it was the previous season with Everybody Loves Raymond at 9 p.m.

With CBS's addition of the well-regarded The Class at 8:30 p.m., Liguori notes the night won't get any easier. "CBS's comedies have really stood out this year, and with The Class, I don't think it's easy launching any new show in this environment," he said.

"We've got the only four-stack of comedies on television and that's saying something," Kahl said. "This is a destination night for the genre, and Two and a Half Men is the centerpiece."

But this is a time slot that has proved that the success of one show doesn't negate that of others. Both Fox and ABC are healthy at 9 p.m. as well with 24 (5.7/13) and The Bachelor (4.2/10), respectively, coming in strong in the midseason. Bachelor was particularly surprising given that the franchise had been in decline in recent seasons.

Bachelor will be put to the test in 2006-07 when it kicks off a new season from Rome in the fall, but it could have more room to breathe if new Fox drama Vanished doesn't hang on to the audience from its lead-in, Prison Break (4.1/10). Once 24 (5.7/13) comes back in January, it will make it harder on everyone.

When Bachelor finishes its cycle, ABC will return Supernanny, another reality series, in its place.

Also stepping into the fray is another new NBC drama, Heroes. The network is putting a lot of promotional power behind this rookie, which could help, as could marketing exposure the previous night in Sunday football. "We've got new shows clustered early in the week to capitalize on that," said Kevin Reilly, NBC's president of entertainment.

Over at the CW, new drama Runaway could make a dent if it could figure out somehow how to hold on to what may be the network's biggest draw if WB/UPN history means anything, 7th Heaven.

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