Catchphrase Of Fall TV Season: Status Quo

One thing is clear after the first few weeks of the 2005-2006 television season: surprises are, and will likely be, few and far between. Those of us who get excited each morning to see the overnights have been looking for more dynamic results.

This is not to say it's been a bad or even sub-par season for television this fall. It's just that, with limited exceptions, the season is playing to script. Granted, we were all spoiled last year when the successes of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost", the emergence of CBS as an adult 18-49 powerhouse, and the shifting gender tides at UPN sent us recalculating a few things. In contrast, this year the catchphrase has been, "status quo."

Let's first review what was expected:

ABC would see yearly gains behind the growth from its top two series, "Housewives" and "Lost." Check.

The procedural drama subgenre would mature and begin to show declines. Check.

NBC and WB would not yet be able to stop their downward momentum, but both would have silver linings on which to cling. Check.



New series would, at best, be time-period success stories as opposed to major events with viewers. Check.

Fox's "House" would hold firm without its "American Idol" lead-in. Check.

This all adds up to ABC (4.2 rating) showing a small advantage over CBS (3.9 rating) for bragging rights among adults 18-49 for the season-to-date. This separation should be taken with a grain of salt however.

Historical data is only as good as its predictive power for future results. If we estimate the impact of the fall 2006 NFL television schedule--where NBC will broadcast Sunday night games, with ESPN airing Monday night games--had it been in place this fall, ABC and CBS would be virtually even. In fact, NBC would also be competitive with both networks.

There have been a few events worthy of a second look.

After a strong start, ABC's "Invasion" is no longer the highest rated new series among adults 18-49. That honor currently rests with NBC's "My Name Is Earl," which is showing considerable strength in a tough time period.

The Thursday 8 p.m. hour sees networks performing at both ends of the spectrum. NBC's "Joey" and "Will & Grace" are showing the greatest declines across all returning series on the six networks among adults 18-49, -57% and -41%, respectively. In the same hour, WB and UPN have both received their best news of the season. UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" is single-handedly keeping the network afloat and is a success in its own right. WB's "Smallville" has revived the network's Thursday lineup after years of failed comedy and unscripted programming lineups.

The next few weeks will provide key insight into how the season will continue to unfold. Can Fox successfully return its fall lineup after post-season baseball, especially Monday's "Prison Break"? What will happen in the Tuesday 9 p.m. hour once "House" returns? "Earl" and ABC's "Commander-In-Chief" received a nice boost from viewers who previously watched "House" when it was preempted for baseball; how many of those viewers will return to "House" rather than stay with their new selection? Can CBS' competing "Amazing Race," which picked up a handful of the stranded "House" viewers in addition to siphoning some of its male audience away from Fox's baseball coverage, continue to grow? What will happen to ABC's averages when repeats of "Lost" or "Housewives" drag down the network's averages?

On the horizon are two key events to consider. First, NBC must strengthen its Thursday lineup. If there's one nightly lineup on any network that has to be maintained at all costs, it's this one. Its Tuesday success "My Name Is Earl" appears ready for such a challenge. Second, Fox's "American Idol" will change the complexion of prime time once it debuts in January. Fox may again be mired in distant fourth place today, but that will change to first with "Idol." The question is whether "Idol" can continue to rate well enough with viewers to drive Fox's season-to-date ratings to the top like last year.

Again, it doesn't look like any real surprises are in store this season. Here's to being wrong. This season needs something to spice it up.

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