Fall TV's winners and losers
How the world’s biggest tumor nearly squashed NBC
As the networks battle and spin over who won the just-completed November sweeps, you may ask yourself: Isn’t the network that got the most viewers the winner?
Wrong! Unlike sports, where the bottom line is the final score and statistics be damned, in television, it’s all about the stats. It’s not how many households watch a given show anymore (and, just FYI, the winner in the total viewer category would be CBS); it’s who is watching that matters. As noted earlier, The WB’s Felicity, which averages just 5.5 million viewers, is considered a success because it draws a disproportionately high number of the 18- to 34-year-old women advertisers want to reach.
”Demographics are now the currency of the business,” explains Preston Beckman, an executive VP with NBC Entertainment. And the key people are adults 18 to 49. ”That demo is important because a variety of life stages are represented in it,” says Giles Lundberg, Fox Broadcasting’s senior VP of research and marketing. ”Household ratings are a holdover from an era when demos were not available on a daily basis.” And, fair or not, advertisers believe this younger half of the population contains the consumers with the largest quantity of disposable cash and the greatest willingness to experiment. Sure, the networks might tell you they welcome all viewers, but don’t believe it. If you’re over 50, TV ain’t programming for you.
But just winning with 18- to 49-year-olds isn’t enough; there are hierarchies even within that niche. Take the results of the November sweeps: NBC beat Fox by a hair, though Beckman argues that it’s still a resounding win for the Peacock. ”As close as Fox and NBC are,” he says, ”the quality of viewer we are delivering [studies show them to be better educated with higher incomes] is much different than the quality of a Fox viewer.”
Oh, yeah? Well, as Fox points out, it has more young males watching, thanks in part to its onslaught of reality programming. And according to advertisers, those are the most attractive viewers. ”We think NBC has it backward,” says Lundberg. ”You can’t find a more desirable audience than ours on Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday.”
So it’s not even the final score that matters. It’s which team has the best-looking fans. Given that niche programming — i.e., narrowcasting — is the wave of the future (cable and The WB being prime examples of winners in this arena), expect to see these distinctions become even more picayune: 18-year-old Slavic model-airplane collectors versus 26-year-old hermaphroditic wrestling fans, perhaps? Don’t laugh.
CBS went looking for a few good (i.e., young) viewers & got ’em with…JAG?
TV’s deepest, darkest secret? JAG — the straight-arrow military drama dumped by NBC three years ago — has grown into a solid hit, making its audience (in the closet almost as long as Ellen DeGeneres) proud.
Call it the stealth bomber of prime-time TV, but JAG has seen its ratings soar since CBS stepped in and picked it up. In its current Tuesday slot, the series is averaging 15.4 million viewers a week (even edging out time-slot competitor Home Improvement) — and regularly cracking Nielsen’s top 20. More shocking still: Those viewers are a lot younger than your average CBS loyalist. This season, its 18-49 audience grew 9 percent. Indeed, JAG attracts nearly as many young adults as The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not bad for a network usually linked with Poli Grip.
”It’s just what I’d hoped for,” says a thrilled Don Bellisario, exec producer of JAG. Credit goes to the show’s budding sex symbols, David James Elliott and Catherine Bell, but Bellisario believes the growth has as much to do with increasingly varied plotlines: ”We do action, humor, drama, even soap lines.”
As you might imagine, the sorts of controversial subjects that heat up ratings don’t always sit well with the folks who inspired JAG. Most recently, the Marines worried about launching their new ad campaign during an episode on alleged nerve-gas use. Bellisario calmed their fears and suggested that they place the ad ”in the fourth act, where David James Elliott gave a speech questioning why people believe the press instead of the people who defend this country. We’re very pro-military and not going to do something to hurt them.” Spoken like a true ex-Marine.