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Thursday, October 20, 2005

My Name is Failure

Breaking news over at the New York Times! Apparently, according to super-sleuth slugger Bill Carter, NBC has lost its claim to First Place among young viewers on Thursday nights:
NBC, which used to own Thursday night lock, stock and barrel, now finds itself wearing the barrel on Thursdays.

The night that defined NBC's dominance in prime-time television for two decades is now a CBS principality, with that network finally winning the 10 p.m. hour in the Eastern and Pacific time zones among the only audience that NBC cares about - adults between the ages of 18 and 49 - with its crime drama "Without a Trace" edging past the most potent drama of the past decade, "ER."
It's all true! Especially if by "used to," you mean "until 2004." And by "now," you mean "for more than a year."

NBC lost it's claim to Thursday night early last season almost out of the gate, when "Joey" debuted to obscurity. The network never recovered. CBS handily won Thursday nights last season in 18-to-49-year-olds.

By Carter's account, NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly is bravely facing up to reality one year later, and considering moving "My Name Is Earl"--currently the 24th most popular television show, 12th among young viewers--over to Thursday nights to literally save the day.

Whatever. The question that doesn't get answered--or even raised--in Carter's portrait of an underdog is why NBC, having failed miserably and historically last season on the night that used to account for 1/3 of its primetime advertising revenue, elected to go into this season with precisely the same line-up of television shows. They left Thurday 100 percent intact. I've got a story in the forthcoming issue of Radar on the dire straits that Reilly's boss, aging wunderkind Jeff Zucker, finds himself in now that he's steered NBC from 1st to 4th among young viewers. One media buyer I spoke to for it said she was so flabbergasted when NBC announced its fall schedule in May that she told her clients that it had to be a fake, and that Zucker would announce some sort of bold Thursday-night shake-up closer to launch. No such luck.

But even as he catalogues NBC's Thursday night woes, Carter manages to give Reilly and Zucker a pass on the decisions they made that got them into this mess in the first place. Instead, we get:
"Joey" has seemingly failed as the 8 p.m. entry, though NBC executives note that it still holds onto a core audience. Putting "My Name Is Earl" at 9 means displacing "The Apprentice," which has tailed off further this season, though it still draws a much better than average rating from 9 to 10 against television's most popular show, "CSI" on CBS.
Seemingly? It would seem so. But it does retain that core audience, by which I guess NBC means that some people continue to watch it. And "The Apprentice" does score a "much-better-than-average" rating against "CSI." Which means...what, exactly? Last Thursday, "CSI" drew more than twice as many 18-to-49-year-olds as "The Apprentice," beating Trump by 7 million young viewers. So less-than-half is still better-than-average? Last Thursday, the average share of the 18-to-49-year-old audience among all networks--CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, UPN, and WB--in the 9 p.m. hour was 8 percent. NBC, with 11 percent, did indeed exceed the average. Which is another way of saying, "At least we beat the WB." I've covered television in one form or another for about six years now, and I've never heard a network tout its ratings by saying they exceed the average rating for that time period. It's an utterly irrelevant way of looking at ratings.

You can't fault NBC for trying to spin things in their favor. But I'm mystified as to why Carter would retail that spin in the Times.