NBC's grip on prime time slips as young viewers flee

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After the first six weeks of the fall season, NBC's supremacy with 18-to-49 demographic is eroding. As November sweeps kicks off, the Peacock Network needs to grab some momentum in order to fulfill NBC Universal TV Group President Jeff Zucker's promise to media buyers that it could hold on to its leadership position post-"Friends."

NBC must be pining for the halcyon days of summer, when it drew 200 million viewers to its Olympic extravaganza. The network has since weakened not only on its key night, Thursday, but more importantly in attracting the lucrative 18-to-49-year-olds demographic.

`no longer a given'

The General Electric Co.-owned network is down 11.6% in this all-important category, according to media agency Carat, part of Aegis Group, and down 10.8% in households. Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming, Carat added: "18-to-49-year-old supremacy is no longer a given for that network."

By comparison, CBS is down 1.2% in households against last year, and up 11.1% in 18-to-49-year-olds.

Tom Bierbaum, NBC VP-ratings publicity, said agency buyers must have expected some declines at NBC in the post-"Friends" world. He also points out that NBC faced presidential debates, two high-scoring Major League Baseball playoff games and a renewed ABC. "Premieres were inside the season last year, this year they were outside," said Mr. Bierbaum referring to NBC's early fall launches which kicked off Aug. 31.

That wasn't what Mr. Zucker said at the upfront in May. Then he assured media buyers, "Next year our Thursday night is going to be even stronger."

According to preliminary ratings for Thursday, Nov. 4, CBS reports it beat NBC in the 18-to-49-year-old demo, winning a 21 share and 8.52 rating against NBC's 18 share and 7.1 rating. In total viewers, CBS attracted 24.2 million viewers against NBC's 15.1 million.

fighting the series

With the World Series on Fox dominating the ratings in week six (Oct. 25-Oct. 31), NBC didn't have a single prime-time entry in the top 10 in households or viewers. Its top-ranking show was season two of "The Apprentice," ranking No. 14 with a 10.2 household rating. Among 18-49s, the same show ranked No. 6 with 10 million viewers while drama "ER" ranked No. 13, with 7.7 million in the demo tuning in.

Given that eyeballs were selling for a 6% to 8% premium at NBC over 2003 during the May upfront, one might expect advertisers to be a little miffed about rising costs vs. falling viewers. The speculation is that make-goods are looming. "What the network guarantees vs. our estimates are two different things. We anticipated there would be a gap," said Donna Wolfe, exec VP, Universal McCann North America, part of Interpublic Group. "They're likely to be offering deficiency units. They'll need to."

Referring to make-goods, an NBC spokeswoman said, "It's business as usual."

While some believe NBC got too much money back in May, upfront deals are a result of supply and demand, and NBC stayed in demand even with the exit of "Friends." It booked upfront dollars of $2.9 billion and $5.3 billion across its networks.

But the network has already canceled "Hawaii," and shifted much-ballyhooed "Father of the Pride" off air until after the sweeps. "Law and Order" is being trounced among 18-to-49-year-olds by CBS's "CSI: New York" while ABC has captured Sundays with "Desperate Housewives."

NBC's bright spot is "The Apprentice," which is trending upward in the ratings. The Mark Burnett series fronted by Donald Trump premiered to 14 million viewers, while the Oct. 28 program pulled 15.7 million viewers. And, as MediaVest's Mr. Getner pointed out, NBC still has Mark Burnett's boxing series, "The Contender," up its sleeve.

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