ABC, CBS stack heavies against Peacock winners

HOLLYWOOD — The new television season is still three months away, but there’s one thing handicappers already agree on: ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and CBS’ “The Agency” don’t have a chance of winning.

Ad execs and media buyers have begun their analyses of the nets’ fall lineups, and these dramas — one a vet moving to a new night, the other a rookie — are seen as being outclassed by NBC’s timeslot winners “Law & Order” and “ER,” respectively.

But these so-called experts are missing the point: Of course these shows aren’t going to win.

Certainly nobody at ABC expects “NYPD Blue” to come in and topple the hotter-than-ever “Law & Order” in their head-to-head battle on Wednesdays. And nobody at the Eye net foresees new Wolfgang Petersen CIA drama “The Agency” taking down seven-year Thursday champ “ER.”

Rivals take action

But what ABC and CBS do appear to have accomplished with their scheduling moves is to lob the strongest grenades yet in the direction of this powerful Peacock pair.

“Law & Order” and “ER” have helped give NBC a lock on the crucial 10 p.m. hour leading into local news for years. But for different reasons now, ABC and CBS are no longer willing to just sit back and get slaughtered.

On Wednesdays during the just-concluded season, 11-year vet “Law & Order” rose to some all-time ratings highs, according to Nielsen, including its strongest February and May sweeps months ever.

Its original episodes won every week but one (opposite the Grammys) and finished as the season’s No. 4 drama in both total viewers (18 million viewers) and adults 18-49 (6.7/18).

Key to its late-in-life growth was a much stronger lead-in from second-year Emmy-winning drama “The West Wing,” which improved by more than 30% vs. its rookie season. The “Wing”/”Law” block gave NBC the strongest one-two drama punch in primetime.

Over at ABC on Wednesdays, rookie drama “Gideon’s Crossing” and second-year meller “Once and Again” were no match for “Law” at 10, often finishing 8 shares or more behind the NBC show in adults 18-49.

Net is now hoping that the loyal audience of “NYPD Blue” (the No. 6-rated drama of the season) will follow the show to Wednesdays to improve its standing on the night.

In doing this, ABC has accomplished two things: It will get the best rating it can muster opposite “Law & Order” while also giving new drama “Philly” a chance to breathe on Tuesdays, where it will face CBS’ “Judging Amy” — a strong performer but certainly a softer touch than “Law.”

If “Blue” had stayed on Tuesdays, it would have had to premiere Steven Bochco’s “Philly” opposite “Law & Order,” virtually dooming it from the start.

For CBS, mounting a formidable attack on Thursday powerhouse “ER” was something that seemed like a pipedream until five months ago.

But the net enjoyed tremendous success on the night during the second half of the season, as “Survivor” ruled the 8 o’clock hour and frosh drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” surprised many by keeping CBS on top at 9.

Now the Eye, which like ABC has basically rolled over at 10 p.m. in recent years by airing newsmags, is in its best position ever to take a bite out of “ER.”

The medical hour continues to rate as TV’s No. 1 drama (22.2 million viewers, 11.2/29 in adults 18-49) but was down 11% year-to-year and looked sluggish down the stretch, posting some of its meekest marks ever.

If CBS’ “Agency” is going to chip away even further at “ER’s” stranglehold on the hour, it will largely do it on the strength of its male aud.

“ER” averaged shares in the mid-30s for adult women demos but logged a “mere” 23 share for men 25-54; “CSI,” the lead-in for “Agency,” generally won its Thursday hour in this demo, boding well for its seemingly well-suited new lead-out.

Even after a combined 18 years on the air, “Law & Order” and “ER” continue to race past all challengers in the way. But thanks to “NYPD Blue” and “The Agency,” there at least now appear to be some speed bumps in their paths.

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