'American Idol' -- Easy as One, Two, Three

Rash Report: Fox Also Scores With Daytona 500

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Hollywood may have been focused on the end of the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray fight, but for those who toil in TV, the fight to watch was between two networks aspiring to create content worthy of a high-definition DVD. When NBC announced it was moving toward a 52-week schedule and an altered upfront presentation, it prompted two key Fox executives to publicly proclaim that NBC's move echoed a scheduling strategy it already had in place.
Fox's 'American Idol' results show last night delivered a knockout blow with an 8.4/11 in the Nielsen 'Fast Affiliate Ratings.'
Fox's 'American Idol' results show last night delivered a knockout blow with an 8.4/11 in the Nielsen 'Fast Affiliate Ratings.' Credit: Fox

Regardless if NBC's announced scheduling strategy is unique or not, the move will be welcomed by both audiences and advertisers alike, as schedules replete with repeats is a business model that dates back to the Big Three, not the big 300 found in most households today. The reruns have been particularly prominent as of late, as the writers strike made the February sweeps irrelevant. This week, for example, out of 93 programs, only 27% were first-run scripted series, while 34% were repeats. Strike-fighting reality TV comprised 29% and news and specials accounted for the remaining 10%.

Not surprisingly, viewers have voted with their remotes: reruns averaged a 1.6 rating in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, compared to a 2.4 rating for first-run series. News and specials were close with a 2.1, but it was the create-a-star reality shows that shone during this turbulent period, earning a 3.3 average.

Fox's assertion that NBC is being more imitative than innovative bears some credence, at least when considering several shows that made, or came close to making, this week's top 10 programs. But with only one series in the top 10 having debuted in the traditional fall season, the data also suggests no network has an exclusive scheduling strategy.

Fox's "American Idol," for example, continued its one-two knockout punch on Tuesday and Wednesday, which were fittingly tied with a 10.1/26 rating and share and followed with a knockout blow last night, as an "Idol" results show delivered an 8.4/11 in the Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings," which would make "Idol" Nos. 1, 2 and 3 this week.

"Idol," of course, was a summer sensation first (making its debut on June 11, 2002) before becoming the cornerstone of Fox's February and May sweeps. In fact, the only place it hasn't swept up is during the fall, as the network wisely has made it an annual spring event. And last summer's pop music show that popped, "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" -- which had its opening act July 11 -- finished seventh with a 4.8/11.

Fox's reality show summer strategy was preceded two years earlier by CBS, when the network captured pop-culture lightning in a bottle with "Survivor." The show eventually jumped from the cover of Television Week to Newsweek and helped legitimize reality TV. Debuting May 31, 2000, it's still going strong, including last night's 4.0/10, tied for 11th with CBS's "Two and a Half Men."

Indeed, reality TV's ability to play nearly anywhere on the schedule has played out on all networks, as evidenced by ABC's Dec. 3, 2003, premiere of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which is still rehabbing houses and building ABC's ratings, finishing ninth this week with a 4.4/11.

And NBC new scheduling decision is partly based on its own experience: "Deal or No Deal," which quickly became the real deal after debuting Dec. 9, 2005, delivered a 5.0/13 to finish sixth. And Monday's premiere of "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad" was better than most shows, tying for 13th with a 3.4/9.

The tie was with Fox's "The Simpsons," which not only debuted Dec. 17, 1989, but began as a short in the short-lived (but long-remembered) "Tracey Ullman Show," which itself started April 5, 1987.

While "The Simpsons" is episodic, ABC's "Lost" is the type of serialized scripted series that premiered in the traditional season -- Sept. 22, 2004 -- but is now smartly scheduled to run uninterrupted. These lessons learned have given the series new momentum -- it was the only first-run drama to crack the top 10, finishing fifth with a 5.7/13.

Before cable competition made mixing midseason series a necessity, most shows debuted in the same September week, such as NBC's "Knight Rider," which had its first test-drive on Sept. 26, 1982. But this week's TV movie remake avoided the cultural clutter of the fall season (and no doubt delighted NBC) by delivering an eighth place 4.5/11, meaning a remade series may itself be part of NBC's newly announced 52-week strategy.

But however impressive the "Knight Rider" ratings -- let alone KITT, the tricked-out car at the center of the show -- it's the stock cars that provide the best lesson on successful scheduling strategies, as Fox's Daytona 500 is a perfectly positioned post-Super Bowl big event. The granddaddy of alternative scheduling, the Daytona 500 ran its first race 50 years ago today, Feb. 22, 1959. Half a century later, two post-race telecasts, the "Winner's Circle" and "Post Race" posted fourth and 10th positions, respectively, with a 6.0/19 and 4.3/13.

So, in the end, what each network needs to heed is that scheduling strategies have always been fluid. It's what's scheduled, not when, that matters most, as scheduling the way people watch -- year around -- as long as it's good content, is an idea whose time has come full circle.

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NOTE: A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with a TV. In order to report ratings on a timely basis, all the ratings listed here reflect a Nielsen Live number. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-3 viewing basis.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.
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