TV battle? Mostly it’s a love triangle

Times Staff Writer

Thursday nights, not Monday nights, were supposed to showcase the battle of the network stars this season.

Although the fireworks between titans “Grey’s Anatomy” of ABC and “CSI” of CBS have been colorful, another unexpected contest broke out in January when Fox’s “24" returned to Mondays at 9 p.m. to face off against CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and NBC’s “Heroes.” Combined, the triumvirate of shows can draw as many as a whopping 45 million total viewers, and all three are in the top 20 shows in the highly desirable demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds.

“That’s a lot of viewers in the age of fractionalized audiences,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president at New York ad firm Horizon Media. “It shows that even in a very, very competitive landscape, you can still get huge numbers.”

Especially in an era when networks are struggling as never before to land a hit show, it’s extremely rare for three bona fide frontrunners to be pitted against one another in the same time slot. The trio has been a boon for Mondays, transforming a traditionally solid television viewing night into one of the most competitive prime-time matchups in recent memory.


For an industry wringing its hands over declining viewership, it’s a three-way battle royal that everyone, even the opposing networks, is enjoying.

“It’s really been a win-win-win for television,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ programming chief. “There’s more resilience in this business than I think people give us credit for. When you put on strong programming, it comes from other places instead of our own hides.”

Coming into this TV season, it was a given that Fox’s real-time nail-biter with Kiefer Sutherland and CBS’ bachelor-pad comedy with Charlie Sheen would butt heads in January on Mondays. But weeks into this year’s fall season, it quickly became clear that NBC’s serialized drama “Heroes” was the one big hit of the season and the network’s most valuable new commodity.

“As we came back from the holidays, I think everyone here held their breath,” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s programming chief, on whether “Heroes” would hold on to its audience. “It’s television. You never know what’s going to happen. You never know.”

Metcalf needn’t have worried too much. “Heroes,” which chronicles an evolutionally gifted and troubled crowd, captured the top spot this week, as it usually does, in the 18-to-49 demographic. Meanwhile, CBS’ half-hour guy comedy can boast the highest totals this week, as it usually does, with 16.5 million viewers.

“Two and a Half Men’s” success has helped newcomer “Rules of Engagement” as well. The relationship comedy starring David Spade continues to perform well, as it did this week by holding much of its lead-in audience and racking up 13.5 million viewers.

In most other time slots, Fox’s action-thriller “24,” now in its sixth season, would be a first-place finisher. But in this elite crowd, it’s third despite an enviable average viewership of 14.4 million this season

But if there has been any viewership cannibalizing among the trio, the popularity of “Heroes” has probably affected “24" the most. “There’s been a bit of nibbling away at ’24,’ ” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s head of programming. “But I think the worst thing to do for us would be to disrespect the core audience and move it somewhere else. We play our game and try not to play another network’s game.”


The three networks say they never gave serious thought to moving their shows to a less competitive time slot. Shifting a show is always a risky decision, not to mention a blow to a network’s pride.

But what about next year? Any of these hits could be transplanted to a soft scheduling spot to try to build a respectable night of programming around them. But executives say it’s far too early to contemplate shifting shows.

CBS and NBC seemed to suggest that there was little chance of movement from the Monday time slot, but Fox was willing to think about it.

“We’ll see. We’re expecting to be at Mondays at 9, but who knows?” said Fox’s Beckman. “We’re at an interesting place, and maybe it’s the year to take some gambles. Maybe we’ll have some tricks up our sleeves.”


But Adgate said he would be surprised if the three shows confront one another in the same place next season. He predicted, like “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’ “Survivor” before them, one of the shows would end up on ad-lucrative Thursday night.

“Each network has a lot of holes to fill,” Adgate said. “There’s almost no chance these three are going to stay put on Mondays.”