Perennial Leader ABC Struggling

  • by November 20, 2001
When a speech by President Bush fell on a crucial television ratings night, NBC decided to stick with its high-flying "Friends" and CBS picked "Survivor" over the address.

ABC bumped a show in favor of the president, but no sacrifice was involved: The Nov. 8 speech drew a bigger audience than the network has been getting for "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" in the time slot.

When a network receives more ratings help from the White House than its programming, there's something wrong.

By just about every measure of success in the 2001-02 season so far, ABC is earning the kind of grades that could get the average kid grounded - or at least get TV privileges revoked.

Judgment calls, bad luck and a bad case of overdependence on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" have undermined the network, which was No. 1 in the 1999-2000 season and No. 2 last year.

Among the four major broadcast networks, including CBS, NBC and Fox, Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC is last in household ratings, according to Nielsen Media Research figures for the new season's first seven weeks.



It's also fourth in total viewers and in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 viewer demographic, although only narrowly edged by CBS and Fox. (NBC is the leader.)

"To date, ABC has very little to be happy about," said Paul Schulman, president of the New York office of Advanswers PHD, a media buying firm.

When the quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was riding high in the ratings in multiple weekly airings ABC soared with it. But then the show abruptly lost its charm, with painful results. The show was averaging 17 million viewers per episode at this point last year. This year, it's at 10.7 million, a drop of 37 percent, according to Nielsen.

"They had the hottest show on the air and were really cocky about it. They clogged up their prime-time real estate, didn't plan ahead and shot themselves right in the foot," said ratings analyst Marc Berman of Media Week.

The network's slide has been precipitous. Compared to the same period last year, it's down 22 percent in households, down 21 percent in viewers and down 15 percent in the younger audience group.

Such erosion puts ABC in the bleak position of having to offer "make goods" to advertisers, the free commercial time due when a show attracts a smaller audience than promised.

"That means they have to pay back a lot of advertisers pretty significantly," said Bob Flood, a broadcast advertising buyer at Optimedia. "It's significant enough that the network is scrambling to make adjustments to their schedule to rectify the situation."

Questionable scheduling decisions are part of what got ABC in trouble, experts say.

"They made the worst programming moves for their established series since fall 1979," contends Berman. That was the year the network shifted "Mork & Mindy," "Laverne & Shirley" and "Fantasy Island" and, he says, "almost killed them."

This season's returning shows juggled by ABC and suffering in the ratings include "Once and Again," "Spin City," "Dharma & Greg" and "The Mole II," already pulled from the schedule.

For "Dharma & Greg," for instance, the ratings are down 30 percent compared to last year; "Once and Again" has dipped 25 percent.

In contrast, other networks have enjoyed significant increases for returning shows. At CBS, "JAG" is up 20 percent in households and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" is up 39 percent. NBC has seen a 27 percent ratings jump for "Friends" and 14 percent increase for "Law & Order."

ABC chief Stu Bloomberg defends changes such as moving the female viewer-oriented "Once and Again" from Tuesday to Friday (bumping news magazine "20/20" from its longtime home in the process and angering host Barbara Walters).

"It seemed the right time period for it. It seemed that audience was not being addressed on Friday night. It felt right," said Bloomberg, co-chairman (with Lloyd Braun) of ABC Entertainment Television Group.

When it comes to new shows, fortune has frowned on ABC and others. The networks have cited the effect of terrorism and its aftermath on viewer willingness to try the unfamiliar.

(One prized January entry for ABC, the reality series "The Runner" produced by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, was pulled because of concerns over its format. A person being pursued across America did not seem appropriate in these security-conscious times.)

ABC had a high-profile failure in "Bob Patterson," starring "Seinfeld" alumnus Jason Alexander as a motivational speaker. And new dramas "Philly" and "Thieves" have yet to prove themselves.

The network appears to have a breakout series in "Alias," with eye-catching newcomer Jennifer Garner, and at least a contender with the Jim Belushi sitcom "According to Jim."

You'd think ABC executives might need a pep talk (from someone other than Bob Patterson), but an upbeat-sounding Bloomberg insists that the network is not adrift.

"According to Jim" and the returning "My Wife and Kids" are part of a strategy to attract the younger viewers who once flocked to ABC for sitcoms including "Home Improvement" and "Roseanne."

"We have some really strong comedies, and it's energizing to look and say 'OK, this is where we are, but now let's just embrace it, redefine ourselves, go back to some of our core values of family comedies,"' Bloomberg said.

He noted that ABC has scored the greatest drop in its median age (44.6 vs. 47.1 last year) among the big three networks and is the No. 2 network among adults 18 to 49 - if only regular programming, not special fare, is measured.

The improvement is not due solely to halving "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's" four weekly airings, ABC says. Shows like the sexy spy drama "Alias" have helped the demographics.

The drop in "Millionaire's" young viewers last season blindsided the network, which was unprepared with replacement programs. Bloomberg acknowledged: "It didn't last as long as we needed it to." He deemed it "still a great show."

One industry observer, Dave Walsh of the media marketing agency Walsh Entertainment Group, approves of the changes under way at ABC. "They have an opportunity to build on the comedy framework that's been set," he said.

But things could get worse before they get better. One of the network's strongest programs, "NFL Monday Night Football," ends its season in January.

"Then comes February and, guess what, NBC has the Winter Olympics," said analyst Schulman. "They're gonna be huge, because patriotism and pride will mean more than ever before."

Which is not to say ABC won't bounce back. In fact, it's almost inevitable.

"It doesn't take that much to turn a network around. This is a very cyclical business," Schulman said. "One or two shows can take you from third or fourth place to the top."

And, as ABC learned with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," can help bring a network back down.

-- By the Associated Press

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