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Fox Ends Season as No. 1 in TV's Key Demographic

May 25, 2005|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

More than 30 million viewers are expected to tune in tonight to see whether Alabama rocker Bo Bice or country crooner Carrie Underwood wins the fourth-season finale of "American Idol."

But there's little suspense surrounding which network will win the TV ratings race for the 2004-05 season, which officially ends tonight.

Defying wide predictions of cooling viewership, "Idol" has helped give Fox Broadcasting -- the 19-year-old network controlled by billionaire Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- its first-ever September-to-May victory among young adults, the viewers advertisers crave most.

The network's triumph comes despite a miserable start to the season, plagued by bombs such as the sitcom "Quintuplets" and reality series such as "The Next Great Champ" and "Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best." As Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori said Tuesday, sounding more like a dogged football coach than a network boss on the job for all of six weeks: "It ain't where you start that matters, it's where you finish."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
TV ratings -- An article in Wednesday's Business section about ratings for the 2004-05 prime-time TV season incorrectly listed the following average viewer figures: CBS, 13.1 million; NBC, 11 million; Fox, 9.6 million; and ABC, 9 million. Through Sunday, according to Nielsen Media Research, CBS was No. 1 with an average of 12.9 million viewers, followed by ABC (10.1 million), Fox (9.9 million) and NBC (9.8 million).

The race in the crucial 18-to-49-year-old demographic -- or "demo," in the parlance of TV programmers -- was exceptionally tight.

Early projections show Fox ahead of CBS in that group by one-tenth of a demo rating point (4.1 versus 4.0), according to data from Nielsen Media Research. (Each point represents approximately 1.3 million viewers; final numbers will not be available until Thursday). Just how crucial Viacom Inc.-owned CBS considers the demo came into sharp focus during last week's upfronts when the network announced it was canceling four older-skewing shows.

Third-place ABC (3.7), surging on hit new dramas such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," is likely to finish just two-tenths of a point ahead of NBC (3.5).

The numbers are critical for the networks, which in the coming days will begin negotiating bulk sales of ad inventory for the 2005-06 season.

For years the undisputed king of the affluent young-adult audience, General Electric Co.'s NBC hemorrhaged 19% of its 18-to-49 viewership this year, thanks to the loss of "Friends" last May and several high-profile new series that failed to deliver, including "Father of the Pride," "The Contender" and "Revelations." Yet despite all of its tribulations, NBC's "ER" and "The Apprentice" still finished in the top 10.

Among total viewers, CBS easily cruised to No. 1, with an average of 13.1 million viewers, trailed by NBC (11 million), Fox (9.6 million) and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC (9 million). Among the smaller networks, UPN was flat in its core 18-to-34-year-old demographic -- which could be seen as good news considering that entertainment president Dawn Ostroff was striving for more of the "Sex and the City" young female audience than UPN has attracted in the past.

"It's very hard to stay afloat while changing directions," Ostroff said. Meanwhile, the WB was down 12% in the 18-to-34 demo, with new dramas such as "Jack & Bobby" and "The Mountain" failing to connect.

In addition to "Idol," Fox was bolstered by its telecasts of major sporting events, including the Super Bowl and the World Series. If sports programming is removed from the equation, CBS wins the demo race.

"Idol" remained the core asset for Fox's lineup, however. Although Liguori's predecessor, Gail Berman, predicted in January that the show might lose some viewers this season, that didn't happen. The program's long coattails helped make a bona fide hit of Fox's new medical drama "House"; meanwhile, ABC's midweek comedy blocks suffered such steep losses that the network canceled "My Wife and Kids."

"Opposite 'American Idol,' everyone would fizzle," said Shari Ann Brill, vice president at Carat, a New York-based ad firm. "The show has that certain je ne sais quoi."

For the fall, Liguori thinks seeding each night with returning series, which come with a core audience, will help the network build on its success next season. Moreover, airing "Idol" only during winter and spring "keeps the show fresh and vital," he said.

Having revitalized Sundays with "Housewives," ABC prime time chief Stephen McPherson, like his rivals at other networks, is trying to figure out what ails the TV sitcom. None of the top 10 series this season was a comedy; some sitcoms that registered big declines, such as ABC's "8 Simple Rules," have already been canceled.

"Comedies across the board were a tougher assignment this year," McPherson said, adding that he and his programmers were trying to determine whether the genre's problems were due more to creative problems or scheduling issues.

An equally formidable issue for programmers next season, though, will be combating the annual "Idol" onslaught that starts every January. Rivals are throwing some of their biggest firepower against the talent contest next season: NBC will debut its high-profile Pentagon thriller "E-Ring" at 9 p.m. Wednesdays; ABC is moving this season's hit drama "Lost" into that slot as well.

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