As we head into this year's upfront season, it may be the first in a long time in which the networks return to one of the basic tenets of their business: broadcasting. At last it appears that several nets are realizing that the single-minded pursuit of urban, upscale adults, known as the 18-to-49 category, has served to alienate rather than attract many viewers-everyone from kids to those 50 and older. To make matters worse, as shows such as Frasier and Friends have aged, coupled with the loss of Seinfeld, nothing has come along to fill the ratings gap. Possible contenders such as ABC's Dharma & Greg and NBC's Just Shoot Me still haven't hit home runs. In addition, cable and the Internet have continued to siphon young viewers away from the broadcast arena. Meanwhile, the precipitous decline in viewing among 18-to-34-year-olds that rocked the networks late last year has continued. A look at the ratings for regular series programming reveals that every network except The WB has experienced its greatest losses in the demo du jour.
With overall numbers falling, demo-specific programming has lost some of its lustre. Suddenly everyone wants to cast a wider net. Even the over-50 crowd is no longer anathema, as long as it doesn't come at the expense of younger adults. "We're making money, based on the 18-to-49 demo, so we have to get those viewers," says ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses. Still, Tarses joins the chorus of network executives who now say that the overall "volume" of a network's audience is important, too.
While some advertisers are grumbling about the networks' delivery of key demographics, Cathy Wilcher, media director at Warner-Lambert isn't terribly worried. Seinfeld or no Seinfeld, there's plenty of programming to go around. "No matter whether you're going out to buy a stereo, or television inventory for your brand," says Wilcher, "if you're clear on what you need and you strike a good deal, you can't go wrong. The nets can position eyeballs anyway they want. I'm happy with the menu [of programs]-it's not the menu that I love, but I'm not the world."
Wilcher is even unruffled by the big 18-to-34 scare. "In our portfolio it's not like we have a ton of youth-oriented brands. But there's still younger demos coming out of the volume." And anyway, Wilcher observes, "No [consumer] target falls very easily into one description. If someone says, 'The only people using Certs are 18-to-34,' that's not true." Warner-Lambert's strategy, then, remains the same, Wilcher says. Strike good deals and cast wide to take advantage of potential customers who may fall outside the target area.
The younger nets must have taken some cues from the Eye, which seems able to play the volume and demo game both ways. While CBS shows such as Touched By An Angel, Becker and Nash Bridges are not 18-to-34 or 18-to-49 sensations, they are seen by a significant number of younger viewers, simply as a function of television tonnage. In early March, the net took the unprecedented step of announcing early renewals for 12 prime-time series, emphasizing its current commitment to stability over demo stalking. That's an about-face from recent seasons, when it attempted to attract younger demos with such 1995-96 bombs as Central Park West and American Gothic, and the failure of virtually all its new early 1997-98 series, many of which were designed to attract younger viewers. CBS learned its lesson and retreated to its traditional fare of older-skewing shows, which in some measure work for the younger demos too. "CBS gets more 18-to-34 viewers than The WB," says David Marans, senior partner at J. Walter Thompson.
Among all network chiefs, CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves is the most outspoken on the subject of imprudent demographic pursuits. His competitors, he chides, "are all eroding because they're going after the same 17-year-old girl in the suburbs," a reference to the media frenzy over the teeny-bopper fare of The WB. CBS' plan, Moonves explains, is to "get more people, more eyeballs watching our set," eventually bringing in younger viewers as well.
Although the Peacock remains No. 1 among adults 18-to-49 and 25-to-54, it has bled more than any other net this season. "NBC's losses were inevitable," says Gary Carr, senior vice president/associate director of national broadcast at Western International Media. "They lost Seinfeld, the most popular show on television. It would be tough for anyone to recover from that." Sans Seinfeld, the Thursday night ratings for adults 18-to-49 have dropped 14 percent, from 12.9 to 11.1.
J. Walter Thompson's Marans believes the reasons for NBC's audience erosion run deeper, noting that the network has major problems every night of the week. He cites as an example NBC's Tuesday night line-up, which has suffered a 25 percent decline among adults 18-to-49 following the move of Frasier to Thursday night. Frasier was replaced on Tuesdays by Just Shoot Me, which one year ago was incorrectly tagged as NBC's next big breakout comedy.
"Just Shoot Me isn't Frasier, and Frasier isn't Seinfeld," says Marans.
Though it will continue to target the 18-to-49 crowd, NBC will strive to become more family oriented next season, according to NBC Entertainment president Scott Sassa. This will be especially important in the early evening hours, when young parents within the target demo are currently hard pressed to find programs they can watch with their children. This is a big change from the NBC of recent seasons, with its countless, interchangeable, cookie-cutter comedies about young urban adults.
Despite shocking declines in all demo categories this season for its regularly scheduled programming, NBC has enjoyed the only break-out ratings success of the 1998-99 season: its Friday night, family-oriented, female-skewing drama Providence. Since nothing succeeds like success, industry observers believe that NBC will lean heavily next season toward new dramas with similar appeal.
This net desperately wants (and needs) another huge audience grabber with young adult appeal, in the tradition of Roseanne and Home Improvement. It has made many attempts to find this elusive prize in recent years, and has come close with The Drew Carey Show, Dharma & Greg, and Spin City, but none of these series has packed the consistent ratings punch of ABC's previous powerhouses. "All their shows got old together, and they're not replacing them with new hits the way they used to," says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president at Schulman/Advanswers NY. "ABC needs to get back to its strong comedy roots."
Strength, apparently, is open to interpretation these days. "The Drew Carey Show is a major success for ABC on Wednesday, the network's most competitive evening," Marans notes. "But no show on ABC's Wednesday hits a 10 rating in the 18-to-49 demo. Drew does an 8.4." Of course, that's high by today's low standards. Marans says that, with the exception of NBC's Thursday night sitcoms and ER, no regularly scheduled series on broadcast television has maintained a 10 rating among viewers 18-to-49 this season.
Mike Grecco, manager of broadcast research for BBDO, points out that, season-to-date, ABC and Fox are "neck and neck" in the 18-to-49 competition. "Fox is trying to broaden its 18-to-49 reach, while ABC is trying to hang on to its No. 2 status [behind NBC] in that category," he says. Look for this competition to intensify next season.
Fox has another high-stakes demographic battle on its hands next year. Although it is No. 1 in the 18-to-34 demo, its regularly scheduled programs have lost 10 percent of that audience season-to-date from the same period last season. "They've lost some of their really young audience to The WB," says Western's Carr. "They want to start going after teens again." That is, if they want to satisfy advertisers. Nintendo, for example, whose overall prime-time spending went up by 36 percent in 1998, more than doubled its share of spending going to The WB, while halving the share going to Fox.
How can Fox reverse this exodus? "Fox has to learn to do a regular, live-action comedy," DeCabia says, referring to the fact that every sitcom Fox has presented during the last four years has failed except for That '70s Show, which is a modest Sunday night success, nestled between The Simpsons and The X-Files. Carr agrees. "Fox could use a new comedy hit or two," he says.
Traditionally, sitcoms are crucial for reaching and sustaining substantial young audiences. The current exception is The WB, which is enjoying significant household and young demographic growth primarily because of the popularity of its youth-ensemble dramas. "They've done really well among teens. Now, they're trying to expand their 12-to-34 delivery," says DeCabia, adding that The WB "is fast becoming a must-buy" for advertisers interested in reaching young people. For example, Levi Strauss' efforts to look cool again may account for the percent of its prime-time budget going to the net, increasing from .3 percent in 1997 to 12.1 in 1998.
Still, there is room for improvement. With shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity appealing primarily to girls, "we're a little more female than I wish we were," says WB CEO Jamie Kellner. "I would like to see us broaden a little bit more into the young male area." The WB's strongest shows-such as Dawson's Creek-are all variations on soap-operas, which typically attract more women than men, so a slight change in direction might be in the offing.
"Our goal is to be No. 1 in the 18-to-34 [demo]," says WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels. "I think you can do a lot of different kinds of programs to try to reach that goal. We're looking for the first time this year at developing some variety and reality shows for prime time." This attempt to compete with Fox's down-and-dirty fare might backfire, though. DeCabia notes that its often exploitative reality series, which continue to draw sizable young audiences, "also push some advertisers away."
UPN, which lost ground this season by taking a 180-degree turn from a schedule heavy with black-ensemble sitcoms, and toward series aimed at "Middle American families," will also try to broaden its appeal in 1999-2000. UPN CEO and president Dean Valentine concurs with others, such as Tarses, that broadening reach is the way to stem losses. "I think efforts to narrowcast to increasingly smaller slivers of the audience are doomed to failure and mean, ultimately, the end of the broadcast business," Valentine says. Going forward, UPN is joining broadcast's big guns in looking to grow its overall audience while targeting "men and women 18-to-49, with a soupcon of men 18-to-34." Valentine's comments suggest that, as it has in the past, UPN will include more male-appeal action-adventure hours than the other networks, in the tradition of its successful Wednesday entries Seven Days and Star Trek: Voyager.
Overall, the networks' strategies as they head into the new millennium suggest something of a return to their pre-Nineties broadcast agendas. Demographics will remain critically important, but not at the expense of the networks' very survival. Better to go broad than pull the plug.