Broadcast nets take it day by day

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Broadcast networks' ratings are up-but the quality of their programming may not be.

All fingers point to the sometimes trashy, sometimes dumb reality shows, say advertising executives.

Don't worry for now. Network executives are abiding by their word, keeping their development slates chock full of scripted programming. But when times get tough, will they cave and offer up the next version of "Am I Hot?: The Brady Bunch Edition"?

Many TV executives believe this will happen. Before this week's upfront presentations, network development slates included the usual swatch of dramas and comedies. Looming in the background, as potential fall replacements, is a rush of reality shows-fare that doesn't necessarily appeal to the broadest range of advertisers nor gets the higher unit prices for the nets. Advertising Age takes a look at the basics each network needs to improve.

ABC

ABC has put a good foot forward-but still has a ways to go.

Starting on Monday, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC needs help in the 8 p.m.-9 p.m. (ET) time slot. Little has worked, including action-hour "Veritas."

"Maybe they should put `Alias' there," says Roy Rothstein, senior VP-national broadcast research for Zenith Media Services, New York, owned by Publicis Groupe and Cordiant Communications Group. This would then unite ABC's entire Sunday block-having recently moved "The Practice" there to 9 p.m. on Mondays.

Tuesday night was ABC's big improvement this year. But only "Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teen-Age Daughter" and "According to Jim" are a lock for next year. Two other comedies, "Life With Bonnie" and "Less Than Perfect," are less than certain to return.

Sunday night is also a problem for ABC, not just with "Alias," but with the highly regarded "Dragnet." It currently ranks in third place-unable to beat even NBC's not-so-strong "Boomtown," which also is on the bubble and may not come back.

ABC's plan on Thursday nights to air a revolving door of reality shows has basically failed. ABC is "the network that needs the most work," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-audience analyst for Horizon Media, New York. "They need character-driven dramas along the lines of `The Practice.' " He says that means dramas for 10 p.m. Wednesday and maybe for 8 p.m. Monday.

The network also needs to bolster Friday. While "America's Funniest Home Videos" is easily covering its overhead, "The Drew Carey Show" isn't performing that well.

Overall, ABC has shown 3% improvement season-to-date, tying CBS with a Nielsen Media Research 3.8 rating.

CBS

Though CBS hasn't reached the pinnacle of where it eventually wants to be, agency executives praise the Viacom-owned network as having the most stable schedule.

It has no problems on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday nights, all key dayparts for the network. CBS even improved on Thursday with "Without a Trace," which runs up against NBC's powerhouse "E.R." Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of audience analysis for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global USA, New York, says the show is growing, averaging 17 and more household shares.

CBS' Wednesday night could use a boost, and that means making "Star Search" more competitive or finding something else, perhaps another drama. Also on that night, CBS is currently airing "60 Minutes II" and "48 Hours Investigates."

Mr. Rothstein says with "American Idol" a solid performer for Fox and ABC's strong "The Bachelor" on that night, CBS should make a break from reality. "It's getting to be reality overload," he says.

CBS could also use some help on Saturday night now that the run of its 8 p.m. show "Touched by an Angel" is over.

To date, CBS is slightly off 3% to a Nielsen 3.8 rating.

NBC

Still the same tune for NBC this year-it gets by with a little help from its friends.

But starting next season, the General Electric Co.-owned network will need some new friends-if not a whole party of friends-on its valuable Thursday night. There are only 18 episode of "Friends" scheduled next season. With the three major sweep periods filled with only original programming, that means just six "Friends" episodes will air in non-sweep periods. To combat this, NBC is already planning as many as four new comedies for the new season. It will need them. Comedy "Ed" is definitely on the bubble, and "Scrubs" and "Good Morning, Miami" on Thursdays could both disappear. And on Sunday, "Boomtown" will probably be canceled.

On the reality front, NBC will try out as many as seven new shows in the coming months. Apart from "Fear Factor," reality shows haven't been a priority for NBC. Right now, ratings aren't too bad for the peacock network. NBC is, season-to-date, still ahead in the 18-49 race with a 4.5 rating. Fox comes next with a 4.2. ABC and CBS are tied for third at a 3.8.

The bad news: NBC is down an alarming 17% vs. a year ago, the most of any of the four major networks.

But NBC can probably still lose ground, even as the leader in the 18-49 race, and still be ahead. Perhaps more importantly, it still retains the leadership in having the highest-rated programs in the 18-49 demographic for adults with income of $75,000-plus. These are light TV viewers who are the higher in demand for a growing number of advertisers.

Fox

Despite an historic year, in which Fox for the first time ever won an 18-49 sweep (in February), agency executives say that isn't enough.

"There is nothing wrong with putting reality on for a short-term basis," says Magna Global's Mr. Sternberg. "The problem is after the show goes off-you need to come up with scripted programming."

With hits "American Idol" and "Joe Millionaire," and now, apparently, "Mr. Personality" hosted by Monica Lewinsky, News Corp.'s Fox is loaded up in the reality area.

Mr. Sternberg says Fox needs better program development, especially for Monday and Thursday. On Monday, "Boston Public" has been losing ground, for example. And most recently, "Married by America" has earned only middling 3 ratings in the key 18-49 demographic.

Still, overall Mr. Rothstein sees Fox sticking with reality shows in the Monday 9 p.m. hour. "It works for them," he says.

On a recent Thursday, Fox ran "That `70s Show" and "The Pulse," which posted only 2.3 and 1.3 ratings, respectively, in the 18-49 demo. Fox also needs to revamp its Friday night, which featured at the start of the season "Firefly" and "John Doe," both of which are off the schedule. The trumpeted "Fastlane" also probably won't make it back, and "Bernie Mac" is also on the bubble for Fox.

The network's big reality shows have been good news for Fox, if only to take the pressure off its one consistently strong night, Sunday, which features still strong ratings from "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle." It wins the night in 18-49 viewers. Fox's action drama "24" is a lock for Tuesdays. Ever since "American Idol" came as its lead-in, it's done amazingly well and gained more critical acclaim than ever.

For the season, Fox still has a chance to unseat NBC as the overall season winner of the 18-49 race. At a 4.2 season-to-date 18-49 rating (up 8% for the year), Fox is only 0.3 behind NBC.

THE WB

In terms of largest growth gains, AOL Time Warner's WB is the biggest winner of any of the six major networks, up 13% vs. a year ago. Still there's more work to be done, especially on Wednesday and Thursday.

It's longtime 8 p.m. Wednesday anchor show, "Dawson's Creek," is ending its run. "Angel" will remain possibly in its 9 p.m. slot and could even get a lift. "It will be helped when `Buffy' is gone-viewers will be drawn to it," says Mr. Sternberg.

WB executives also discuss doing more work on the Thursday schedule. "Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch," at 8 p.m., will end its run, as will "On the Spot," its sketch comedy show at 9:30 p.m.

A new show, "Sweet Potato Queens," starring Delta Burke, is slated for the fall and Mr. Sternberg says it would probably make a great companion show for "Reba," which airs at 9 p.m. Friday. Another possibility is moving "Reba" and "Queens" to Wednesday for the 8 p.m.-9 p.m. hour.

UPN

UPN took it on the chin this year.

Not only were some of its series, such as "Enterprise," off the mark, but UPN's wrestling show, "WWE Smackdown!," also lost ratings ground.

Another problem is replacing "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which is going off the air. "Haunted," which follows "Buffy," didn't make the grade. That means an entire revamp of Tuesday.

On Wednesday, "The Twilight Zone," which follows "Enterprise," will probably not return, according to analysts.

Despite problems with "Smackdown!," it will continue to be the Viacom-owned network's only show on Thursdays. Also, UPN's ad sales staff will-for the first time in the show's history-sell "Smackdown!" advertising. Up until now it has been sold by producer World Wrestling Entertainment.

Bright spots include UPN's ethnic sitcoms starting with "The Parkers" on Monday night, which will probably remain intact.

Overall, UPN's 18-49 prime-time numbers stand at a 1.5 rating, down 21% over the same period a year ago.

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