Plucked Peacock discards Donald, goes back to comedy for Thursday

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NBC's down 18% and The Donald has just been fired from Thursday.

That's the kind of month the beleaguered network's had.

After ending the November sweeps with a third place 3.3 18-to-49 rating, NBC needed to do something drastic to try to right itself, if for no other reason than to prove to buyers and advertisers that it's trying.

"They're backsliding from last year's big slide," said one national network TV buyer. Added Bill Cella, chairman-CEO of Magna Global: "I don't think anybody was anticipating this [kind of decline]."

While NBC lost 18% of its 18-to-49 viewers, ABC, CBS and Fox all stayed essentially stable or increased their take. ABC and CBS tied for the win in 18-to-49s with a 4.4. NBC scored a 3.3 and Fox hit 3.1. (It's impossible, buyers say, to judge Fox in the fourth quarter with heavy-hitter "American Idol" starting in January.)

To be sure, since the upfront's $1 billion loss, NBC has sounded like a much humbler network. The reconstruction is a two- to three-year plan NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker told Ad Age earlier this year.

Its first attempt to right the ship came last week when NBC announced its midseason schedule, heralding the return of comedy on Thursday night as it sends Tuesday night success "My Name is Earl" to Thursday. Donald Trump and Mark Burnett's "The Apprentice" was moved off that night to make room for a block of four sitcoms, the formula NBC rode to success last decade and which allowed it to claim it had "Must-See TV."

Stick with what works

"Creating a comedy block on Thursday is the strategy they had when they were leaders," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research integration for Initiative Media. "Do what you know."

Thursdays were for more than a decade ruled by the Peacock network, but once "Friends" ended, the "Must-See TV" block has struggled to hold on to viewers, despite the gamble that fans would come back to watch spinoff "Joey." And then CBS crept in with its "CSI" franchise.

"Will & Grace," in its final season, will now anchor the new Thursday night block at 8 p.m., followed by the Seth Green-starring "Four Kings," "Earl" and "The Office." "ER" will remain in the 10 p.m. spot. The new schedule begins the week of Jan. 2; NBC hasn't ruled on where "The Apprentice" and "Joey" will land once it returns to regular prime time in March, post-Olympics.

"This is a big move to reestablish a comedy habit," said Mitch Metcalf, exec VP-program planning. "What we find over and over is viewers like to watch comedies in blocks. And this is the time to re-establish that on Thursday because we have the goods."

The ratings for the current season of "The Apprentice" were the lowest ever. This season the show has averaged 10.5 million viewers, down from almost 14 million in the previous season.

Passing the buck

Mr. Trump has blamed the downward trend on NBC's doubling up on the show, airing "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" the night before. Last month, he complained in published reports that his lead-ins were to blame. "If we had the same lead-in as season one, I think I'd be getting higher ratings than season one. Instead of having `Joey' and whatever, I think we would have actually higher ratings," he told the New York Daily News.

The network will keep "The Office" as "Earl's" lead-out, encouraged that "The Office" is increasing its retention of Earl's audience. The most recent episode of "The Office" retained 76% of "Earl's" lead-in audience, as opposed to the early season retention rates that hovered in the mid-60% range.

To be sure, pitting "Earl" against CBS's "CSI," regularly one of TV's top five-rated shows, is a risky move for the freshman hit. But media buyers say it should help the network shore up its bleeding on the most profitable night in TV. Replacing the "Earl"/"Office" combo on Tuesday is "Fear Factor" followed by an hour of "Scrubs."

"NBC needs something to work for them in midseason," said Andy Donchin, director-national broadcast, Carat. "They can right the ship. All it needs-and ABC proved this-is one or two shows to spark."

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