Horse race heats up for Fox, ABC and CBS
By Cynthia Littleton
Last summer, primetime pundits predicted this season would come down to a photo finish among Fox, ABC and CBS in the adults 18-49 demographic. The thoroughbreds in this race have not disappointed.
Most network number-crunchers foresee Fox pulling ahead by a nose in the final stretch next month to win by one-tenth of a rating point, or a mere 130,000 viewers in the key demo, with ABC and CBS right behind. Braggadocio aside, the real story behind the razor-thin margins is that each of those networks generally has had a good season, albeit in different ways.
At Fox, not even the most bullish "American Idol" fans could have predicted that the show would come back in January with such force to become even more dominant than last season. In 2004-05, the Tuesday edition of "Idol" was primetime's most-watched program overall, but it had only a 700,000 viewer edge over CBS' second-ranked "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." So far this season, the Tuesday "Idol" has a 6.8 million viewer lead over third-ranked "CSI." (Wednesday's "Idol" ranks No. 2).
That "Idol" hasn't given Fox more of an advantage at this stage of the game is a testament to how much ground the network had to make up, especially from its postseason baseball coverage in the fall. There was no way Fox could re-create the magic, or the magical Nielsen numbers, of the Boston Red Sox's march to victory in 2004. The introduction of "Prison Break" and the continued heat of the dramas "House" and "24" have helped Fox's cause.
ABC is poised to end the season with the highest gains among the Big Four. As of the week ending March 26, ABC was the only network up over last season in adults 18-49 and in total viewers. The February Super Bowl telecast accounts for some but not all of that momentum.
ABC didn't have the Midas touch with its new shows this season as it did in '04-'05, but "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" have hung tough, given how high the bar was set after their first seasons. Round 2 of "Dancing With the Stars" proved to be another top 10 entry. But the real workhorse of ABC this season has been "Grey's Anatomy," the medical drama that has hit white-hot pop culture status with ratings to match.
What CBS has more than any of the others is fearsome bench strength. CBS' wide lead in total viewers is paced by a stable of solid dramas that are still on the grow: "Without a Trace," "NCIS," "CSI: NY," "Cold Case" and "Numbers," joined this season by rookies "Criminal Minds" and "The Unit."
NBC has endured the kind of season that top management mea culpa-ed for in advance last year during its upfront presentation. But there has been some joy in Burbank. "My Name Is Earl" defied naysayers and worked respectably, if not spectacularly. And the decision to hang in with "The Office" has been rewarded, thank you iTunes.
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Was it a coincidence or history repeating itself? Producer Moctezuma Esparza couldn't help but notice that the timing of last week's walkouts by Los Angeles-area high school students to protest immigration-related legislation pending in Congress came soon after the March 18 premiere of "Walkout," his HBO telefilm about student protests in East Los Angeles in 1968. Esparza says that the conditions that inspired the 1968 demonstration, in which he participated, are little changed nearly 40 years later. "I cannot ignore the fact that our movie was very specific in re-creating the tactics and strategies of what we did in 1968 and that it has inspired students today," he says.
Noela Hueso contributed to this column.