In a tale of two networks, so-called reality programs have led Fox to a dramatic turnaround in the February sweeps, while ABC -- accused not long ago of "mortgaging the future" by relying so extensively on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- faces renewed questions for jettisoning most scripted programs in pursuit of a quick ratings fix.
Although CBS emerged as prime time's most-watched network for the sweeps -- one of three key periods that local TV stations use to negotiate ad rates -- all the buzz within TV circles is about Fox, which rode the tent poles of "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol" to an unprecedented first-place finish among adults younger than 50. In so doing, the network snapped NBC's three-year winning streak by that measure, dating back to the heyday of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
With Wednesday's results yet to be tallied, CBS averaged 14 million prime-time viewers for February, followed by NBC (12.4 million), Fox (12.2 million) and ABC (10.4 million).
Yet based on young-adult demographics, Fox was first by a wide margin, followed by NBC, CBS and ABC -- a stunning revival given that Fox finished fourth during the last sweeps in November. In fact, Fox's viewing rose 45% compared to that survey, with overall viewing of the major networks up 7%, to an average 49 million people at any given moment in prime time.
Those results prove "that the network pipes work," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, who, alluding to the torrent of Michael Jackson-related specials, quipped that the upcoming May sweeps could only be stranger "if the next reality show is 'Survivor: Neverland.' "
The deluge of staged reality programs at the expense of scripted series, however, has left TV executives pondering whether the form's restorative powers amount to just what the doctor ordered or a dangerous overdose -- the most jarring evidence being that a mere five of 22 prime-time hours on ABC last week consisted of scripted sitcoms or dramas, due in part to its multi-night stunt "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!"
Still, all the major networks preempted scripted shows during the sweeps, potentially disrupting viewing patterns. NBC, for example, bounced the Thursday sitcoms "Scrubs" and "Good Morning, Miami" several times, at a point when the network desperately needs newer comedies to take root as "Friends" heads into its final season.
CBS Television President Leslie Moonves noted that some rivals "literally blew up their entire schedules, scrambling for every rating point." Asked about parallels to the "Millionaire" experience during a conference call Wednesday, ABC Television Entertainment Group Chairman Lloyd Braun said, "This is a whole form of television; we're not talking about a single show."
The lingering question is where the staged reality trend leads. All the networks are planning a number of short-order unscripted shows in lieu of summer reruns -- creating an anticipated reality logjam that WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin compared to daytime talk shows in the 1990s, where pressure to one-up each other eventually spurred lawsuits and even death -- in the form of a slain guest on the "Jenny Jones" show -- until advertisers fled and the genre withered.
"These are short-term franchises at best," Levin said, citing his network's commitment to scripted fare while adding in regard to those networks awash in alternatives, "It's making their brands that much less distinct.... How do you tell one network from another? They're all doing the same thing."