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CBS Catches Attention of Key Demographic

September 24, 2004|Meg James and Jonathan Taylor | Times Staff Writers

For the last four seasons, NBC has enjoyed undisputed bragging rights to the audience demographic that advertisers cherish most. Now there's some dispute.

CBS' new forensic crime drama "CSI: NY" beat NBC's longtime powerhouse "Law & Order" on Wednesday night. It not only drew more viewers overall but captured the 18-to-49-year-old segment, known in the industry simply as "the demo."

The victory demonstrated the strides CBS has made in shedding its image as a haven for older viewers. It also comes at a particularly welcomed time for the Viacom Inc. network, which is grappling with the controversy surrounding its flawed story about President Bush's National Guard service. The ratings suggested that viewers aren't letting CBS News' problems keep them away from shows they want to watch.

Just three days into the new season, it's too soon to pronounce a winner in the race for younger viewers, and NBC executives on Thursday downplayed the results. But CBS sounded a triumphant note.

"Slowly, methodically, since Leslie [Moonves] got here, we've built the network night by night, hour by hour," Kelly Kahl, CBS' executive vice president for scheduling, said Thursday. "What this represents overall is that on any given night, we can be competitive not just in viewers but now in 'the demo' too."

The importance of landing these viewers is enormous to each network's bottom line. In June, NBC parlayed its dominance in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic into $2.9 billion in advertising sales for the season that kicked off this week. Although CBS continues to attract the largest audience, it hauled in $500 million less than General Electric Co.'s NBC.

With so much at stake, executives at CBS and NBC have tried to kick off their seasons with a bang, using the kind of creative scheduling -- known in the trade as "stunting" -- that is usually reserved for sweeps months.

Among its maneuvers, NBC moved "West Wing" out of its Wednesday 9 p.m. slot to make room for back-to-back episodes of "Law & Order." The first episode won in the 9 p.m. time period. But at 10 p.m., "CSI: NY" handily topped the second episode, attracting nearly 4 million more viewers than "Law & Order," for a total of 19.3 million. In the 18-to-49 demographic, the CBS show drew 2 million more viewers.

"CBS has to be pleased with its performance so far," said Lowell Singer, media analyst for investment banking firm S.G. Cowen & Co. "And NBC has to be concerned. Other than 'Joey,' it's not clear that any of NBC's other new shows are going to be wild successes."

CBS has worked hard to improve its showing at 10 p.m., scoring particularly well with "CSI: Miami" on Mondays and "Without a Trace" on Thursdays. As CBS' Kahl noted, "it has a great impact on late news, and a great impact for Letterman."

Sure enough, this Wednesday, CBS' "The Late Show With David Letterman" posted its best numbers among young adults since 1994.

Next Wednesday, CBS will bank even more heavily on the "CSI" franchise by running a repeat of the season premiere of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" as a lead-in to the spinoff "CSI: NY."

NBC, for its part, launched its new shows earlier this month, hoping to get a bounce from its broadcast of the Summer Olympics. But two of its new dramas, "Hawaii" and "LAX," have not taken off with viewers. "The Apprentice" with Donald Trump also got off to a slow start.

"I don't think this sets in stone the way the season is going to go," said Mitch Metcalf, NBC's senior vice president for scheduling. "It wasn't like we had a number at 10 o'clock that we should be ashamed of. 'Law & Order,' in its 14th year, continues to attract a great audience."

Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC, meanwhile, had reasons to be upbeat about one of its new shows. The highly promoted TV drama "Lost," about plane crash victims trying to survive on a tropical isle crawling with monsters, generated ABC's highest ratings for a drama in nine years: 18.7 million viewers.

Stephen McPherson, ABC's president for prime-time entertainment, said the network was encouraged that its focused advertising campaign, which included billboards and spots on radio and the Internet, had paid off. "But nothing has changed for us," he said. "We are trying to manage expectations and move forward as smartly and aggressively as we can."

Advertisers on Thursday said that viewership for "Lost" had exceeded their expectations.

" 'Lost' was found," said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for the ad-buying firm Carat USA. "You have to build a network one show at a time, so this might be the show for ABC."

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