Why older shows can't keep up in the ratings. Reliable favorites are having to campaign even harder to keep their numbers up, but is that even working?
Kelsey Grammer, Frasier, ...
Credit: Frasier: Chris Haston

Some notable incumbents are having a hard time this fall. We’re talking, of course, about the nascent television season. (You didn’t think you accidentally picked up ”The New Republic,” did you?) Bellwether shows are facing the campaign of their lives against spunky upstarts and sports programming. ”It’s been a relatively good year for new programs and a substandard year for longstanding favorites,” says John Rash, senior VP of Campbell Mithun media research. While overall broadcast network viewership this season is down just 3 percent among the 18- to 49-year-olds advertisers crave, NBC’s ”West Wing,” for example, is off a whopping 33 percent.

Competition is especially stiff this year. NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker notes that ”Wing” faces not only ABC’s ”The Bachelor,” but strong freshman contenders ”Birds of Prey” on The WB and ”Fastlane” on Fox. ”Do we wish it were doing better? Of course,” says Zucker. ”But how would NBC be doing if we didn’t have ‘The West Wing’ in there?” NBC also maintains that the Oval Office drama is tracking close to its level from last season’s finale (when ”The Bachelor” was seducing viewers on another night). Also skewing the comparison are the record ratings from last fall’s post-9/11 episode.

President Bartlet isn’t the only one trailing in the Nielsen polls. Three weeks into the season, CBS had just one show (”CSI”) that improved on its performance of last year, while NBC had two (”Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and ”Scrubs,” buoyed by its move to Thursdays). The Peacock network is already jettisoning underperformers. After losing another 13 percent in the demographic this year, the cast of NBC’s once-dependable ”Providence” will shed its final tears in December.

Sagging numbers for returning shows aren’t a new phenomenon. But the pattern went on hiatus during the last two TV seasons, which were disrupted first by the 2000 Olympics, then by the 2001 terrorist attacks. ”2002 is a good old-fashioned classic network season,” says CBS’ executive VP of research, David Poltrack. In addition, he notes that mature series often lose ground to much-hyped new entries at the start of a season, then recover by November sweeps.

As you read through our handicaps of network veterans that have been bleeding young viewers, you’ll see Poltrack may be on to something. The hard truth of TV programming is that by the end of a season 75 to 80 percent of new shows fail to match the ratings of their predecessors.

CHIEF RIVALS ABC’s ”Life With Bonnie”; CBS’ ”The Guardian”; The WB’s ”Smallville”
DEMO DIP 12 percent from 2001
PROGNOSIS In addition to the natural audience erosion for an older show, ”’Frasier’ faces the syndication factor,” says Rash. ”Its success in reruns makes the NBC version seem less exclusive and less necessary.” But Zucker refuses to get agitated ”when you’re in your 10th season and you’re still winning your time period.” Besides, he has a plot twist in store for sweeps: ”It involves a serious health scare for Niles.” A perfect story line for Mr. Hospital Corners.

CHIEF RIVALS ABC’s ”8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and ”According to Jim”; Fox’s ”That ’70s Show” and ”Grounded for Life”
DEMO DIP 18 percent from 2001
PROGNOSIS It’s still too early to jump ship. The CBS military drama is down 11 percent in total viewers, but the network blames Major League Baseball for sucking away one of its core audience groups: males over 35. ”JAG” didn’t face postseason play in its first five outings in 2001. ”We’re not seeing a pattern of decline,” insists Poltrack. ”When the dust settles and baseball’s out of there, it’ll be strong.”

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