Doing what it takes to steady their grip

Times Staff Writer

For a decade, NBC was the market leader, pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars more than its rivals and commanding the highest rates in the television industry. But the network went from first place to fourth in the race for 18- to 49-year-old viewers last year -- a standing it will keep this year -- and wound up with less than $2 billion in prime-time advertising commitments.

By contrast, ABC ended a four-year sales slump last spring and has grown its audience of 18- to 49-year-olds by 8% over last season; Fox could beat its competitors in the race for 18- to 49-year-old viewers for the second consecutive year; and CBS has the most stable schedule of all, with a record 16 returning shows. So how do the networks plan to improve or hold on to their positions?

This year, NBC has produced eight comedy and seven drama pilots, fewer than usual because the network is now developing series year-round, Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said.

As a result, Reilly started picking up new series before anyone, announcing two high-profile shows in March, one from Oscar winners Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco and the other from Jason Smilovic (“Lucky Number Slevin”). Two weeks ago, he went for a trifecta with Aaron Sorkin’s new drama, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” starring Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet and Bradley Whitford.


“Somebody said to me once, ‘You can’t rebuild when the house is on fire,’ ” Reilly said. ‘It feels like all of that is behind us now. We have no shortage of holes on our schedules. We want to come out and make a big statement this year for the audience and the advertisers. This is going to be a big drama year for us.”

ABC, already in the business of successful dramas, is desperately looking for a half-hour comedy. The success of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” last year allowed the network to raise its rates and land $500 million more in sales for a total of $2.1 billion. Add “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and “Dancing With the Stars” to that mix and ABC’s upfront prospects look even better this year, especially since it has surpassed NBC in the race for top-rated shows among upscale viewers (18- to 49-year-olds who make $100,000 or more). ABC produced the most pilots of all the networks, with 16 dramas and 17 comedies.

“We have a very broad palette of programming, and that’s something that is important to advertisers,” said ABC Executive Vice President of Entertainment Jeff Bader. “We don’t have seven procedurals on our air. At ABC, it’s all about the characters, and you’re going to see more of that this season.”

Fox, which takes in less revenue because it programs just 15 hours a week in prime time compared with 22 hours on ABC, CBS and NBC, garnered $1.6 billion in upfront commitments last year and could pull in even more this year with its monster hit “American Idol,” as well as the strong “24,” “Prison Break” and “House.” The network made history last year, beating all competitors in the race for 18- to 49-year-old viewers, and has a shot to do so again this year.

The network also finally caught a break, thanks to its favorite prisoners, in programming around major league baseball. By launching in August, “Prison Break” established a following before the October hiatus that returned to the show after baseball.

Fox President of Entertainment Peter Liguori said advertisers can expect early premieres again this year. He also expects the launching of the CW, the new youth-oriented network that is replacing the WB and UPN, to have an effect on Fox coffers.

“In my mind, the collapse of the WB and UPN presents a tremendous upside when you realize that the one network is no longer there and it probably means there’s a couple hundred million dollars available in the marketplace,” Liguori said.

CBS, which sold more advertising than its rivals with $2.5 billion last year, can expect to do well again this year, thanks to its stable schedule. The network may not have the industry’s biggest show (Fox’s “American Idol”) or the most buzz (ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost”), but it can boast of a record 16 returning shows. CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler announced 14 of those renewals two months early because the benefit of beefing up the returning shows months ahead of competitors outweighed the strategic advantage of keeping mum.

“We’ve been able to bring back our writing staffs, hire the best directors, make any early casting changes ... to really shore up the creative teams for next year,” she said.

CBS shot 12 comedy and 11 drama pilots, including shows produced by veterans Brian Grazer, John Wells and David Crane and starring such well-known actors as James Woods and Ray Liotta.