Not so long ago, such a feat would have been unthinkable: the underdog UPN television network beating the mighty NBC in a crucial Thursday night slot.
But that happened this week as the premiere of UPN’s Chris Rock-inspired sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” surpassed NBC’s “Joey” on Thursday at 8. In head-to-head competition, the UPN show averaged 7.8 million viewers, while the first half of an hourlong “Joey” mustered 7.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research figures released Friday.
More troubling for NBC, its entire Thursday night lineup -- once so unstoppable that the network dubbed it “Must-See TV” -- suffered steep declines from last year. Ratings for “The Apprentice,” with Donald Trump, dropped 42% from the same week a year ago, and “ER,” entering its 12th season, slid 35% among the 18-to-49-year-old demographic most important to advertisers.
“ ‘Must-See TV’ has become musty TV,” said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for Carat USA, an ad-buying firm.
The shift in the network’s prime-time fortunes Thursday night is noteworthy because that programming block used to bring in 40% of NBC’s overall revenue. Thursday has long been the most lucrative night in television because Hollywood movie studios, automakers and retailers will pay premium rates for commercial time to influence weekend spending.
NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker declined to comment for this article. So did Kevin Reilly, NBC’s president of entertainment.
To be sure, it is only the first week of the 2005-06 TV season and viewers might return to familiar patterns after they sample new shows. Television experts say it usually takes at least three weeks of ratings data to draw meaningful conclusions.
Moreover, among the six major networks, NBC, owned by General Electric Co., finished Thursday night No. 2 to the dominant CBS, owned by Viacom Inc., which also owns UPN. NBC averaged 2 million more viewers than third-place Walt Disney Co.'s ABC.
Still, many analysts were watching the direction of the trend, not just the raw numbers.
“This is such the business of perception,” said Elizabeth Herbst-Brady, director of national broadcast for Chicago-based Starcom USA. “It’s not that NBC doesn’t have shows that people want to watch or buy time in. It’s just that people are comparing NBC’s current performance to its past dominance.”
NBC’s “Must-See TV” is part of television history.
The network unveiled the slogan in 1994, when it was flying high with its Thursday lineup of “Mad About You,” “Wings,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and the final season of “L.A. Law.” That’s when profit from Thursday night was greater than from the six other nights of the week combined, according to executives who were then at NBC. That fall, it added “Friends” and “ER” to Thursdays.
But last season, CBS surged past NBC to become the Thursday night ratings champ. NBC fell from first to fourth place among 18-to-49-year-olds after its workhorses “Friends” and “Frasier” ended their long runs. Industry executives say NBC failed to plant the seeds of a new generation of hits.
Since 2000, NBC has launched only a few hits, including “Fear Factor,” “Las Vegas” and “The Apprentice.” More recently, its tent-pole programs “The West Wing,” “Will & Grace” and even the original “Law & Order” have shown signs of wear.
“Their Thursday night supremacy was ripe for the taking,” said Carat’s Brill.
NBC got a wake-up call in June, when advertisers refused to pay higher rates after NBC’s prime-time ratings had dropped 17% last season. NBC took in nearly $1 billion less in prime-time commitments from advertisers than it did the year before.
Since then, NBC executives have scrambled to get more new shows ready to air this season, calling TV studios and top agents to solicit material. The network has 10 mid-season shows in development.
Last week, top NBC executives from Burbank flew to New York to brief GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt on their strategy to improve the network’s performance and discuss those mid-season shows.
NBC executives have been nervous about the new season, which got off to an encouraging start Monday. NBC surpassed expectations for its new something’s-in-the-water drama “Surface” and won Tuesday night with its quirky new comedy “My Name Is Earl” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Then came Wednesday, which ABC dominated with the return of its Emmy-winning drama “Lost.” NBC executives, who had spent about $10 million to promote “My Name Is Earl,” braced for the results of Viacom’s $12-million marketing push for “Everybody Hates Chris.” When the ratings came in Friday, it was hard not to think of the e-mail that Reilly sent last week to his staff. Headlined “The Fall Season,” it was upbeat but guarded.
“We have a lot to be proud of,” said the e-mail, first published on the Defamer website. “While our challenges remain and our work will more than likely be portrayed negatively in the coming weeks, I think we all know in our hearts that things are sparking at NBC.”
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NBC’s audience shrank Thursday night compared with a year before.
Average number of viewers (In millions)
(Percentage of people watching TV at the time)
Sept. 23, 2004: 19.7 (25%)
Sept. 22, 2005: 14.4 (16%)
Sept. 23, 2004: 15.9 (20%)
Sept. 22, 2005: 9.9 (11%)
Sept. 23, 2004: 14.9 (20%)
Sept. 22, 2005: 7.8 (9%)
Los Angeles Times