Marc Berman's Mr. Television column in the weekly print edition of MediaWeek gives a few reasons why it is increasingly difficult to tell the winners from the losers in network TV land:
Mr. Television: Spin Out Of Control
October 11, 2004
Picture this. It's Sept. 24, the morning after the first Thursday of the new season. CBS is proudly gloating about Without a Trace, which opened season three first in the 10 p.m. hour with 21.5 million viewers, for the first time outdelivering an original episode of NBC's ER. CBS doesn't mention that the missing-persons-themed Trace didn't hold 9.06 million, or 30 percent, of the viewers from lead-in CSI. NBC, meanwhile, crows that ER won the hour in all key demos but neglects to mention that the veteran medical drama is down by double-digit proportions year-to-year. So, which of these shows should be considered the winner?
Before I answer that, here's another example. ABC's Desperate Housewives connected instantly with 21.64 million viewers on Sunday, Oct. 3, making it the network's most-watched series debut since Spin City opened on Sept. 17, 1996, and its most-watched drama premiere since Sept. 19, 1995. Once again, NBC cranks out its retort, pointing out that its competing Law & Order: Criminal Intent built on its lead-in by 46 percent. NBC fails to mention the drama is down by double-digit percentages year-to-year.
These are just two incidents of the incredibly amped-up spin being perpetrated on the press by the networks. No matter how goodor bada show does (in network, cable or syndication), the goal of the public relations department is to trick writers into believing everything the networks touch turns to gold.
On an average morning as I write my daily Programming Insider ratings-analysis e-mail, the barrage of phone calls and e-mails from every network is endless. And it's increasing. Unless your background is in ratings researchI now feel thankful for the years I spent crunching ratings for a number of companiesyou need a Ph.D. in statistics to decipher what is real and what isn't. I remember a time when the networks didn't resort to this amount of bluster. But the competitive nature of this business has escalated to the point where the people writing these press releases ought to be put through a lie-detector test before issuing their angles.
I am constantly accused, from all sides, of showing favoritism ("You're on CBS' payroll," "You have a vendetta against NBC," "Why do you look at all telecast ratings?" are some recent comments). But I do not play favorites. If a network or syndicator makes good programming and/or does well in the ratings, I'll say good things about themit's that simple. But let me also provide a more detailed explanation of the guidelines I use to measure success, particularly with new series.
Does the series build on, or hold, the year-ago time-period average?
Does the series build on, or hold, the lead-in average?
Is the series performing well in any particular demographics?
Has the show lost more than 15 percent of its audience in week two, or more than another 10 percent in week three?
Has the show leveled off in ratings after one month?
What are critics saying about the show?
Does the series have a long potential shelf life given the nature of the story lines?
Is there any buzz around the watercooler?
The last benchmark is probably the most important. I can't begin to tell you how many shows caught my attention when I heard other people talk about them.
I understand that everyone has a job to do, but I also think that a bit of humility can go a long way when a network, or individual show, is hurting in the ratings. While I can'tand won'tcome to any specific conclusions after just three weeks of the 2004-05 season, ABC is poised to make a considerable comeback, CBS is a true competitor among adults 18-49, NBC is fading into oblivion, the WB has a huge advantage over UPN, and the jury is still out on Fox until after baseball ends.
Spin tends to increase as ratings decrease. Flacks redouble their efforts to find something positive to say when there's nothing good going on. The benchmarks I listed help me bust through the B.S. and figure out what stands the best chance of surviving. Right now, in my book, there are two bona fide new hits this season: ABC's Lost and CBS' CSI: NY. I'm also on the verge of including ABC's Desperate Housewives, but true to my benchmarks, I have to wait at least through week three.
Oh, and in the battle between the Thursday-night dramas, it's clear to me that Without a Trace is the winner.