All Isn’t ‘Lost’ in Ratings ‘Race’
Evidence of the fear of strikes by writers and actors that gripped the networks earlier in the year is actually being seen on television this week, as programmers use unscripted programs to get an early jump on the new television season.
All the networks found themselves with programming to spare as the new television season approached, having rushed to order unscripted programs to offset the potential impact of threatened work stoppages by the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America. When those labor negotiations were resolved in the spring, programmers began contemplating how best to deploy those series as pawns in the fall-season chess game, which doesn’t officially begin until mid-September.
NBC and CBS made the first moves in that regard Wednesday, introducing the similarly themed “Lost” and “The Amazing Race,” respectively, while trotting out last-minute episodes of two existing unscripted programs, “Fear Factor” and “Big Brother 2,” in an effort to blunt each other’s ratings for the new shows.
For all the gamesmanship involved, the ratings race itself proved relatively mundane. The result was a draw, as both new programs got off to reasonably good if unspectacular starts in terms of audience sampling.
“Amazing Race” averaged an estimated 11.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, tying the audience for “Fear Factor.” In the preceding hour, “Lost” attracted an audience of 9.4 million, versus 11 million viewing “Big Brother,” which sought to bolster its ratings with a stunt that involved bringing alumni of CBS’ “Survivor” into the house.
Both networks plan to repeat “Lost” and “Amazing Race” this weekend, hoping to give more viewers an opportunity to catch up on the programs’ formats and contestants. They also put their respective spin on the ratings data, each expressing satisfaction with their initial performance.
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker noted that “Fear Factor’s” solid showing against such a heavily promoted new series reinforces that the program will be a formidable “weapon” for NBC. The stunt-oriented competition show emerged as prime time’s most-watched program during the summer, and though it has been left off the fall schedule it’s assumed NBC will bring the series back as soon as some of its new shows struggle or fail.
“Lost,” which is produced by late-night host Conan O’Brien’s company, is scheduled for a six-week run at 8 p.m. in part to allow the network to delay the second-season premiere of its sophomore series “Ed” until mid-October--thus reducing the number of reruns the show will have to broadcast during the official broadcast year, which runs through May.
“If we can get some circulation back in that time period, that’s a good thing,” Zucker said. "[And] if that helps ‘Ed,’ it is more than worth it no matter how ‘Lost’ does.”
In that respect, CBS clearly has more at stake with “Amazing Race,” a 13-episode order that will have to go up against NBC’s “The West Wing” and in a few weeks.
“If that’s the number we hold the rest of the year, that’s 100% ahead of where we were,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ executive vice president of program planning and scheduling, alluding to the young-adult audience that tuned in Wednesday for “Amazing Race.” “And there’s certainly room to grow.”
As for the advantages of luring viewers back to see network shows and try out new programs immediately after Labor Day, Kahl added, “That’s also a back-door reason why ‘Big Brother’ is nice for us. It keeps the oven preheated during the summer.”
Other networks are also using left-over, unscripted fare to plug holes as the season gets underway. Fox, for example, will premiere the long-delayed “Love Cruise,” featuring cabin-hopping singles on a cruise ship, on Tuesday at 9 p.m. The goal is in part to “warm up” that time period for the new drama “24,” which, like many of Fox’s programs, will wait to make its debut until after the network finishes televising the baseball playoffs and World Series. After sharing baseball with NBC, Fox has exclusive rights to those games this year.
Despite the promotional advantages the networks hope to reap from generating higher tune-in now, Zucker suggested this week’s early premieres were something of an anomaly, brought about by contingency planning for a writers strike as well as a bit of a chess match being played by CBS and NBC. “The premiere week is still the important thing,” he said.
The other major program offering on Wednesday night, meanwhile, was Barbara Walters’ interview with actress Anne Heche, marking the premiere of “20/20" in its new time slot. The newsmagazine drew more than 13 million viewers, winning its time period and attracting ABC’s largest audience in that hour in more than a year; by way of comparison, it fell about 10 million viewers short of the audience than saw Connie Chung’s recent chat with Rep. Gary Condit.
CBS officials are breathing a small sigh of relief that Walters’ next big interview “get,” with singer Mariah Carey, has been postponed. That hour, originally scheduled for next week, would have gone up against the debut of a new CBS drama, “Wolf Lake.” In terms of promotional vehicles, CBS could also benefit from the opportunity to advertise its new programs during the nighttime Emmy Awards ceremony, which the network will broadcast on Sept. 16.