Why wait for the Olympics next month to witness grueling competition--just watch the broadcasters roll out their midseason prime-time schedules in the coming weeks.
CBS and ABC might be running neck-and-neck for gold and silver medals in most major demographics, but the return of American Idol on January 17 likely will propel Fox Broadcasting into the mix.
"January is going to be a lot more interesting than it usually is," said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president of programming operations at CBS. "Everyone is anxious to make a statement before the Olympics come in. The intensity is greater than in the past, with some big shows on the move."
Among the shows trying new time slots in January are ABC's summer hit Dancing with the Stars and NBC's hottest new half-hour, My Name Is Earl. They join nine new series rolling out before the Olympics commence February 10.
Fourteen weeks into the season, the race in key demographics is as close as expected: CBS is just one-tenth of a rating point ahead of ABC among viewers 18-49, the demographic coveted by advertisers (4.0 to 3.9), and the networks are tied with an 11 share. CBS maintains tight leads over ABC in total viewers, households and adults 25-54. ABC is a hair ahead of Fox among viewers 18-34.
Meanwhile, NBC is down by double digits in all major demos except households (down 7 percent). Among the two younger-skewing broadcasters, UPN has improved its numbers in viewers 12-34 and 18-34, while WB is flailing across the board.
The slightest midseason time-slot shift could influence the outcome of the 2005-06 horse race, which will determine how billions of advertising dollars will be divvied among the broadcasters when the season ends in May. Most executives envision a three-way deadlock in which CBS, ABC, and Fox would be separated by one- or two-tenths of a rating point in the 18-49 demographic.
Of all the midseason programs likely to make a difference, Fox planning executive Preston Beckman noted that the Super Bowl, which airs Feb. 5 on ABC and on CBS in 2007, could add a tenth of a point by itself.
"I think the Super Bowl is going to be in the next couple of years the difference between possibly winning or losing a season," said Beckman, the network's executive vice president of strategic program planning.
Jeff Bader, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment, professes that ABC isn't as concerned with winning the season as it is with building the schedule for the long term. More important, he believes, is the composition of the audience; ABC supplanted NBC this season as the top-rated network among upscale viewers 18-49 (though NBC still reigns among shows with highest upscale index).
"What's the difference if you are first, second, or third if it's by one- or two-tenths of a point?" Bader said. "The upscale network brings different advertisers. That is what makes the biggest difference."
As for NBC, even a two-week ratings bump from the Olympics likely won't be enough to pull out of the cellar this season. Mitch Metcalf, executive vice president of program planning and scheduling at NBC, sees its midseason changes as the foundation for 2006-07.
"I think what this does is establish us for the long haul and building for the future," he said.
No night will be under greater scrutiny than Thursday, which attracts the lion's share of marketers, including movie studios intent on getting consumers into theaters during the weekend.
"People see the pot available there, and they want to get some," Kahl said. "Thursday has a lot of economic sway."
With NBC down 33 percent on Thursday in 18-49 during the first 13 weeks of the season vs. the same period the previous year, the network will introduce an overhauled lineup for the night in January sans Joey and The Apprentice.
Will & Grace will complete its final season in the 8 p.m. slot, allowing a new comedy, Four Kings, to get a test run at 8:30 p.m. In addition, in what might be January's boldest gambit, NBC will take prime time's top-rated new comedy, My Name is Earl, and move it along with its Tuesday companion, The Office, to the Thursday 9-10 p.m. slot.
Metcalf acknowledged that transplanting a first-year hit to brutally competitive Thursday is a gamble--but one with big potential payoff.
"I feel like there's an element of risk to it, but it feels like exactly the right time to establish a strong comedy footprint on the night," Metcalf said.
In addition to facing down CBS powerhouse CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Earl will take on the last half-hour of Dancing, which returns in an expanded 90-minute format (new comedy Crumbs comes in at 9:30 p.m.).
Fox also could hurt NBC's new Thursday lineup by adding a third installment of Idol on Thursdays from February 23-March 9, pushing The O.C. to a new 9 p.m. time slot.
Last season, the network played down its expectations for Idol only to watch it return bigger than ever--to the tune of roughly 27 million viewers on both Tuesday and Wednesday. It's hoping that a third edition will be stronger on Thursday than it has fared on Mondays in the past.
With the emergence of healthy new series including Prison Break and Bones, Fox might seem a world away from its troubles in fall 2004, when a fleet of new unscripted series flopped. But Fox is actually down 9 percent in 18-49 so far this season because the viewership drawn by its postseason baseball coverage paled in comparison to 2004.
However, its nonsports prime-time programming is up about 15 percent, according to Beckman. "We go into the January wars with more weapons and in better shape than we were a year ago," he said.
Fox also is getting aggressive on Monday after futilely attempting to establish comedies Arrested Development and Kitchen Confidential. The debut of the unscripted series Skating With Celebrities will serve as lead-in for another season of 24. CBS also will make an adjustment Monday, replacing Out of Practice with Courting Alex to see if it can better capitalize on its Two and a Half Men lead-in.
ABC also is attacking Monday with a new postfootball lineup, including returning series Jake in Progress and new entry Emily's Reasons Why Not. Bader believes the network's female-friendly juggernauts, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, will provide a perfect promotional base for the following night.
"We're hoping to use our great Sunday numbers with women to help launch Monday," he said.
ABC also is rebooting on Friday, dismantling its comedy block to give a new drama, In Justice, a try at 9 p.m. CBS is staying with Close to Home in that slot, where it is performing better than it did in the Tuesday berth where it began the season.
The Big Four also could see a boost from any of the slew of new series sitting on the bench awaiting post-Olympics time slots. CBS has the comedy The New Adventures of Old Christine, the drama The Unit, and an untitled game-show franchise in the hopper. ABC has the comedy Sons and Daughters, dramas What About Brian and Evidence, as well as reality series Miracle Workers and American Inventor.
Fox has two comedies, Free Ride and The Loop. NBC has the comedy Teachers, dramas Conviction (working title) and Windfall, as well as the unscripted series Treasure Hunters.
Another midseason addition that could be a factor in May is Nielsen's new ratings measurements that launched last week, which incorporate separate tallies for viewing with or without digital video recorders (either later that day or one week after the original airdate). Don't be surprised if two different networks declare victory in May--citing different figures.