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Networks debate merits of demos over programming.

The U.S. 2002-2003 television season is turning out to be a very challenging one for the six major terrestrial networks. VideoAge's prediction that no one network [would get] all the glory" this season is turning out to be true. Although NBC remains comfortably ahead of second-place CBS with adults 18-49 and 18-34, CBS has managed to hold on to its overall lead in total viewers. ABC has also made strides this season, and the WB has picked up some real momentum. Additionally, the cable nets have been pulling in record-sized audiences-worrying the majors a bit--and almost all of the new series from big-name producers have bombed.

The biggest story is certainly the sizzling NBC-CBS competition. CBS had a first-place finish in total viewers on the inaugural day of the "November Sweeps" (a period when ratings are most closely watched), the first time it managed that feat since the advent of People Meters in 1987. This has started a bitter debate between the two nets as to which is really more important, the 18-49 age group or total viewers.

CBS, of course, argues that leading in total viewers is a more commendable achievement, as it proves the versatility of a net's programming. Chris Ender, senior vice president of communications at CBS, said, "We don't chase 1 8-49s like all the other nets do. We broadcast to all viewers, and we want people ages 2-95 to tune in to our programming." He pointed out that 25-54s remain CBS's "core demo" and that the net is up for the year in 18-49s, also.

But NBC's ratings and program information director, Tom Beerbaum, came back strong, saying that "ABC and Fox both acknowledge that 1 8-49s is the key race. If and when CBS ever reaches first place in that category, they'll be quick to turn around and admit that that is what the business is all about."

Beerbaum went on to suggest that CBS has had such success thus far simply because it "came out of the gates stronger than last year." In 2001, the Eye did nor premiere its ever-popular reality series Survivor until later in the fall, whereas this year it loaded up the front-end of its schedule with all its big-gun programs. The net's first two weeks were incredibly triumphant, but since then," said Beerbaum, "they've been down [in the] year to year [ratings comparison], and we've been up."

While it is true that NBC remains the stronger of the two nets overall, CBS's success should not be downplayed. The net has introduced some solid new shows, including the hit crime drama CSI: Miami (internationally distributed by Alliance Atlantis), the half-hour comedy Still Standing (Twentieth Century Fox Int'l) and the hour-long caper Without a Trace (Warner Brothers Int'l). Although not quite as strong as the others, Hack (Paramount TV Int'l) has also achieved renewal. According to Ender, "The freshmen series have made immediate contributions for [CBS]. We have won [nearly] every week in total viewers. Of the net's returning series, Survivor and sitcom darling Everybody Loves Raymond continue to perform well.

In contrast, NBC has relied more upon its veteran shows than its new entries, with the Law & Order franchise still an undeniable powerhouse. But other familiar favorites, like The West Wing and ER, are starting to lose steam for the Peacock, and promising freshmen series like Boomtown (MGM Int'l) and American Dreams (MGM) have fallen short of expectations. Nevertheless, as Beerbaum noted, four of the five new NBC series (the two mentioned above along with half-hour laffers Hidden Hills [MGM] and Good Morning, Miami [Warner Bros.]) have already been renewed--an uncommonly high ratio. "Typically, a net is lucky if it can keep half of its new shows through to the second-half of the season. Usually, only 30-40 percent of new shows survive," said Beerbaum.

As for the other nets, ABC's decision to focus on family-oriented sitcoms has paid off, with two first-year series--8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and Life With Bonnie (both internationally distributed by Buena Vista Int'l)--proving themselves worthy of renewal. Returning family shows like George Lopez and My Wife and Kids also remain solid. Although the net lingers a good deal behind NBC and CBS, it seems the Alphabet is finally pulling out of the rut it's been stuck in the last few years, and may even finish the season with a second-place in 18-49s.

Fox has been sluggish, having to rely mostly on perennial faves like The Simpson; and Cops. The net has a high ratio of first-year losers to winners, having already canceled The Grubbs (Universal Studios TV Distribution), girls club (Twentieth) and Firefly (Twentieth).

Those last two were surprising disappointments, considering each was the brainchild of a big-name producer (David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon, respectively) working with an even bigger budget. But Fox is not alone here. Just about all of the new series from brand-name producers have failed to convert this season. Among others, ABC's Push, Nevada (Buena Vista), a hugely-hyped interactive drama from Ben Affleck, has already had its plug pulled, while the WB's Tollin-Robbins caper Birds of Prey (Warner Bros.) failed to stay in flight.

The networks are looking to the mid-season, which begins this month, to help smooth out their various bumps. All told, between 12 and 15 new programs should be rolled-out on the U.S. big six between NATPE and MIP, meaning that international distributors will be carrying lots of new material in their luggage. A good mix of comedies and dramas had success this fall, and both genres will continue to be important in the mid-season. At least a few more comedies of the family variety will grace screens after the new year, but the genre will venture out a bit further than it had in the fall, with a number of new entries concentrating on single adults and at least one dramedy on the way. Meanwhile, cops and/or private investigators will continue to dominate drama. Taken as a whole, the more traditional crime series have probably been the single most successful type of primetime programming this season, with the more experimental titles trailing.

As of press time, NBC had a couple of highly-anticipated roll-outs planned, including the hour-longs Kingpin and Mister Sterling (both MOM). Kingpin is a new drama from celebrated producer David Mills that, like the successful 2000 feature Traffic, follows a Mexican drug lord who does some major dealing in the U.S. According to NBC spokesman Curt King, "It's a gritty show that is realistic and pushes the envelope in much the way the cable networks' programs do."

Of course, all the terrestrial nets are desperate to ward off the growing cable threat, which became convincingly real when HBO's hit drama The Sopranos drew primetime's largest viewing audience the night of its season debut.

CBS will make its own attempt to capture the independent spirit with My Big Fat Greek Family (tba), a new comedy based on the runaway indie feature smash My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Other mid-season entries include Queens Supreme (CBS Broadcast Int'l), Baby Bob (tba) and The Real Beverly Hillbillies (tba).

Fox has a number of series on deck for the mid-season, including Wanda at Large (tba), starring African-American stand-up comedian Wanda Sykes; Keen Eddie (Paramount), yet another cop drama; and sitcoms Oliver Beene (DreamWorks) and The Pitts (Twentieth). This past summer's ratings-phenom, American Idol (FremantleMedia), returns on January 21. Said Fox spokesman Scott Grogan, "The show was a surprising and rousing success for us and we look forward to the American people choosing who will be the next American Idol."

On the cable front, E! Entertainment will be launching two new shows in the new year: Star Dates and The Michael Essanay Show.
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Author:Visakowitz, Susan
Publication:Video Age International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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