For the networks, it's time to sharpen up fielding skills, time to take extra batting practice to get out of deep slumps (see Fox and ABC) and time to improve holes in strong lineups (see NBC and CBS). Small players, such are UPN and the WB, look to push to the next level and compete with the big boys.
Advertising Age takes a look at the upcoming upfront season and analyzes what each network needs to improve its batting -- and rating -- averages.
ABC: Back to basics
This year, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC needs to go back to the ABCs, as the network's fundamentals need to improve across many dayparts.
"They need an hour on a Monday, an hour on Tuesday, rehaul Wednesday and two hours on Friday," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president for programming analysis for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media, New York.
Going into this week, ABC had only committed to six existing shows next year: NYPD Blue, The Practice, Alias, My Wife & Kids, According to Jim and The Drew Carey Show. So ABC has a lot of opportunity, but unfortunately the odds aren't good that its problems will be solved quickly. "It is very difficult to launch a lot of shows," Ms. Koerner says.
ABC will most likely banish its once savior Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to the bench, saving the show for special sweeps programming. All this means that ABC needs a replacement at 9 p.m. ET Thursday, which is a good opportunity, say media agency executives, since NBC's high-flying series Friends looks to be finished after the 2002-03 broadcast season.
CBS: Acting younger
CBS wants to make it a year everybody loves CBS.
The Viacom-owned network wants to improve its adults 18 to 49 position -- it's currently tied for second place with Fox with a 3.9 rating. This could come on Thursday night, where CBS possibly could move up its strong Survivor and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation combination to 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., respectively. All this seeks to tackle NBC's Will & Grace and ER.
CBS says it wants more younger-skewing shows, but not everyone is convinced of that. "They say they want to get younger, but their development never indicates that," Ms. Koerner says. "They still do shows with Richard Dreyfuss."
"Every time they drop their median age, they position themselves better," says Doug Seay, senior vice president of national broadcast of Publicis & Hal Riney, New York, part of Publicis Groupe. CBS' weakest nights are Friday and Saturday.
One of CBS' problem
FOX: Losing shows, losing viewers
Fox's prime-time schedule has been hurting just like an athlete on the disabled list all year -- losing 20% in the key adults 18-49 demo for its regular programming, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Not only is News Corp.'s Fox ending the run on two of its major shows, Ally McBeal and The X-Files, but 10 of its highest rated returning shows have seen household ratings decline. For example: Titus is down 20% in household ratings, King of the Hill is off 16% and even The Simpsons is off 15%.
Through it all, Fox has had two modest hits: sitcom Bernie Mac on Wednesdays and action hour 24 on Tuesdays. The latter series, though not as big a ratings winner as media agency executives expected, "has very upscale numbers and [is] one of the best things I've seen on television," says Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president of audience analysis for Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York.
But these two shows aren't enough. Ms. Koerner says Fox needs better programming to fill an hour on Tuesday, a half-hour or hour on Wednesday, two hours on Thursday, one to two hours on Friday, and one and a half hours on Sunday.
"In other words, quite a bit," she says.
NBC: Still champion
NBC has pulled off a dominating winning season, posting a Nielsen 5.2 rating/14 share through April 21 in adults 18-49, way ahead of the pack. (A share is a percentage of TV households that have their sets on at a given time, while a rating is a percentage of all TV households.) Even without its big Olympics programming in February, General Electric Co.-owned NBC still tops all networks.
But there are dark clouds ahead. Its big hit Friends will end after next season, after the show's average household ratings climbed 18% this past year. That's remarkable for a veteran show, according to industry analysts.
For the upcoming season, analysts bet NBC could slip Scrubs, its rookie hit on Tuesday, into its perennially troubled 8:30 p.m. Thursday slot. Scrubs is ranked 20th of all network shows with a 5.3 rating among adults 18-49. Mondays have been an improvement. New show "Crossing Jordan is doing real well," Ms. Brill says. Jordan has been earning a 4.9 rating among adults 18-49, ranked 23rd of network shows.
NBC will need to work on Tuesday nights, especially the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. period, which had Emeril (canceled) and Three Sisters (on hiatus). NBC also will struggle with the rest of the evening, as the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday slot "is brutal," Ms. Brill says, "by far the most competitive time period."
UPN: Help from sibling CBS
UPN set it phasers on stun again this year on Wednesdays, and it vaporized the competition, especially for young male viewers. The latest Star Trek installment, Enterprise, gave the Viacom-owned network a lift on Wednesdays. UPN also did well to grab onto Buffy the Vampire Slayer as its ratings improved on Tuesdays.
"It seemed that Buffy's viewers just went with her to UPN," says Ms. Brill. Right now, UPN could use an hour each to help Buffy on Tuesday and Enterprise on Wednesday.
Analysts expect sibling net CBS to offer more programming to UPN -- perhaps even more repurposing like it did this year with CBS' Wolf Lake and The Amazing Race.
WB: Super surpise hit
When the WB's Buffy moved to UPN last year, media executives were expecting the worst. Then the WB pulled a rabbit out of its hat with the surprise hit Smallville.
But there's more work to do. "WB has to maintain a younger skew," says Larry Novernstern, senior vice president and director of national broadcast for Interpublic's Deutsch, New York. "Dawson's Creek is getting a little worn out." As happens to young-skewing networks, the WB's shows are getting a bit older.
This past season, the AOL Time Warner-owned network also did well in launching a Friday comedy night, especially its hit Reba, which is the third-highest series overall in terms of household audience on the WB.
The WB needs to fix Thursday and Sunday nights. While Charmed on Thursdays has been a good performer, it has slipped this year 18% in household ratings.