It's like deciding between a scoop of mint chocolate chip and a scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough. It's like being forced to give up either your favorite pair of comfy sneakers or your broken-in, make-your-ass-look-good jeans. It's choosing between Joshua Jackson and Jensen Ackles. Tonight at 9pm, Fox's Fringe and The CW's Supernatural battle against each other for your eyeballs, and there's a considerable amount at stake.
Neither show is a locks for renewal next season, and studio executives are watching the ratings for both shows like hawks. Of the two, Fringe appears to be in more danger of not returning, simply because Fox's demands are greater than The CW's. But there's a chance that the two audiences are actually the same, and in a worst-case scenario, the two shows could cannibalize one another's viewers, tarnishing the future of both programs.
Fox moved Fringe from Thursdays to Fridays almost three weeks ago, when American Idol returned and took over Thursdays. Since Fringe settled into its new time slot, the numbers have been shocking: They're pretty much the same as they were on Thursdays. This goes against the old rule that no one watches TV on Fridays (or it supports the theory that Fringe fans don't have anything better to do on Friday nights, but personally, I find that offensive).
"I'm surprised [Fringe's Friday-night ratings] started as high as they did," Bill Gorman, co-founder of ratings-watching site TV by the Numbers, told me. "And I'm surprised they were steady for the second week."
He's surely not alone. Fox must be unexpectedly pumping its fists over Fringe's loyal fan base. If the show can attract a core audience on Friday night, then Fox can confidently renew it for a fourth season... as long as that core fan base sticks around. One sacrifice will be the ability to grow the Fringe audience. But that's always been a problem with heavily serialized sci-fi dramas like Fringe. Even ABC's fabled Lost saw a fairly large drop in total viewers as it inched toward its end.
And it's important to note that those two weeks in which Fringe aired on Friday nights came without any real competition (Fringe went from finishing fourth in its Thursday-night time slot to finishing first on Fridays). Now Supernatural and its two-million-plus audience have a shot at taking away Fringe's sub-five-million audience.
What's going to happen? No one really knows, not even Mr. Gorman. "I'll be waiting on Saturday morning for the [ratings] news just like the rest of us in this universe." And that's coming from a guy who forecasts ratings for a living.
If the past is any indication, then there's room for both, even in the same time slot. The two shows survived the 2009-2010 season when they faced off against each other on very busy Thursday nights. Let's hope history repeats itself.