Aging Shows, Management Shakeup Give ABC Cause for Concern

With Revenue Down and Ad Buyers Wary, Network Begins Fall Season With Challenge of Recapturing Its Once-Resurgent Appeal

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- ABC needs to pull a desperate housewife out of its fall schedule.

In 2004, after suffering a drop in upfront ad sales thanks to an overdependence on game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," ABC greenlit "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," which fueled its resurgence. This fall, ABC's hoping for a similar jolt. The network has grown reliant on a group of aging stalwarts and that has ad buyers concerned.

ABC can't afford to lose any viewers of its aging 'Grey's Anatomy.'
ABC can't afford to lose any viewers of its aging 'Grey's Anatomy.' Credit: Peter 'Hopper' Stone
How bad has it gotten? Even ratings -challenged NBC, no longer so far behind ABC in terms of performance, has been taking potshots. For the 2009-2010 prime-time broadcast season, ABC saw its average viewership come in third, behind CBS and Fox, according to Nielsen. More crucial, perhaps, is its viewership in the demographic coveted by advertisers -- people between the ages of 18 and 49. ABC nabbed an average of 2.692 million viewers, Nielsen said, while NBC, boosted by its broadcasts of the Winter Olympics, captured an average of 2.686 million viewers between 18 and 49 -- not too far apart.

Couple that with ABC's recent spate of executive turnover -- ABC news chief David Westin has indicated he will leave by the end of 2010, and the network has parted ways with both Stephen McPherson, the man who devised its new fall schedule, and Michael Benson, one of the executives who was supposed to market its new shows to the masses -- and it will be a year of rebuilding.

"Their tentpole shows are indeed aging," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas media-buying firm MPG. He suggests the "younger" shows that have potential will need strong sampling to gain a foothold among younger viewers. "Otherwise you might be looking at a longer reclamation project for the Alphabet network," he said.

Producing better-watched programming is crucial to ABC's success. ABC has seen its upfront sales decline in recent years, according to recent estimates from Fitch Ratings . The Disney net once marched in lockstep with the arguably more stable CBS, securing about $2.5 billion in ad commitments for the 2008-2009 TV season. This year, ABC was only able to notch around $2.2 billion, according to Fitch, after falling to $2.1 billion in 2009. Meantime, lesser-ranked NBC and better-rated Fox increased their smaller totals year over year.

This comes after ABC, like all the other broadcast networks, saw overall ad revenue drop in recession-plagued 2009 by 2.1%, to about $5.06 billion from $5.17 billion, according to Kantar Media. (ABC's decline was less than that experienced by any other broadcast rival that year.)

ABC executives are "very enthusiastic and very positive" about the fall, said Geri Wang, president-sales and marketing at ABC. She has seen "high demand" from advertisers for the network's older shows and noted that pricing for so-called scatter advertising, or ads purchased closer to air date, is running significantly higher than that charged during the upfront.

Things seem to be on a slight rebound in 2010: The network has taken in about $3.1 billion in ad revenue during the first seven months of the year, compared with about $3.01 billion in the same period a year earlier, per Kantar. But while buyers cheer returning fare such as "Dancing with the Stars," they remain cautious about ABC's new fall slate. Some of the shows in which they see the most potential are scheduled against serious challengers on rival networks. The gritty cop show "Detroit 1-8-7" will compete with CBS's "The Good Wife" Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Likewise, the family-friendly superhero drama "No Ordinary Family" would have to do battle with Fox's "Glee" and "American Idol," CBS's "NCIS" and NBC's "The Biggest Loser" on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.

One potential breakout: A show called "My Generation," a faux documentary-style program that purports to follow a group from Austin, Texas, when they graduate in 2000 and again a decade later. Buyers say the program is unorthodox, but that quality could help it stand apart from the usual slate of police dramas and sitcoms that populate the TV grid.

Don't expect ratings to grow for "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." But if ABC can maintain those shows' audiences, grow last year's breakout hit "Modern Family" and develop one or two new hits, "you're having a completely different conversation," said Todd Gordon, senior VP-director of broadcast at Interpublic Group's Initiative.

To steer that conversation, the network is counting on Paul Lee, an executive who enjoyed a great run at sister cable outlet ABC Family and replaced Mr. McPherson. His decisions may not be felt until the season is well into its second half.

Meanwhile, new TV seasons are fraught with failure -- executives will tell you that 80% of new programs fail -- and ABC asserts that if there's one constant, it's change. "Everyone's schedule is constantly being fine-tuned," said Ms. Wang. "It's a constant in the business. We take off what's not working and we're always looking to improve the schedule."

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