Net pushes 'Apprentice' back to previous slot

Fox’s “American Idol” drenched its competish for a third straight night on Wednesday, as network rivals now brace to see if the phenomenon follows its similar monsoon-like weather pattern or if they’re looking at a seasonlong tsunami.

The show already has claimed its first victim: After getting hit this Wednesday by the “Idol” storm, NBC quickly opted to move reality entry “The Apprentice” back to Thursday nights.

“Apprentice” delivered good scores given the competish, but it nonetheless was way down from its two special Thursday segs — hence the quick return. But in the process, Peacock played a little scheduling roulette and altered its Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday lineups.

Shifting ‘Scrubs’

Starting next week, NBC’s Thursday nights will lead with “Friends,” followed by “Will & Grace” at 8:30 and “Apprentice” at 9 p.m. To make room, “Scrubs” has been pushed to Tuesdays at 9:30.

As a result, the Peacock’s Tuesday now will start with “Whoopi,” followed by “Happy Family” (which returns to the 8:30 slot after a stint at 9:30), “Frasier” and “Scrubs.” Odd man out is “The Tracy Morgan Show,” which has been sentenced to schedule purgatory — Saturdays at 8 (paired with a “Whoopi” repeat). Net will air second runs, rather than originals, of “Apprentice” in the Wednesday 8 p.m. slot.

Scheduling move caught rivals by surprise, particularly at Fox — where execs said they were stunned that NBC didn’t wait it out a few weeks, given that “Idol” will air for just a half-hour on some Wednesdays.

NBC also opted to make the move just an hour or so after sending out a press release touting “The Apprentice’s” Wednesday night time-period performance as the net’s best in almost three years.

But insiders said NBC was anxious to protect “The Apprentice,” which is being primed as a key component of next fall’s post-“Friends” Thursday night sked: A strong show from 9 to 10, for example, would take a lot of pressure off new laffer “Joey” in the night’s opening hour.

And moving “Scrubs” to Tuesday puts that show in line to take over the key “Frasier” slot on the night.

New sked also gives NBC a better shot opposite CBS in both the 9 o’clock hour (opposite “CSI”) and at 8:30 (where “Will & Grace” will do battle with the second half-hour of “Survivor”).

NBC also may benefit from a Mark Burnett spillover at 9, as “Apprentice” will be directly following his “Survivor” on CBS.

Nonetheless, had “Apprentice” performed better this week, show probably would have remained on Wednesday. And NBC’s blink reminded execs just how much “American Idol” significantly affects the ratings perf of each show to oppose it.

“Idol” closed out its opening week by again ringing up some of the best numbers for any telecast this season. It also helped lead-out drama “The OC” notch its best scores to date.

According to Nielsen nationals, Wednesday’s hourlong “American Idol” averaged a 12.7 rating/32 share in adults 18-49 and 29.43 million viewers overall from 8 to 9, topping the other five broadcast nets combined in 18-49.

Show remains incredibly balanced, as well, drawing a 35 share in adults 18-34 and a 29 in adults 25-54. And in its sweet spot, female teens, it soared to an incredible 50 share.

For its opening three nights this season, “Idol” averaged a 12.7/31 in adults 18-49, racking up three of the season’s top four scores for an entertainment program. (Only a recent episode of “Friends,” which netted a 12.9/34, is in the ballpark.)

This year’s first three installments are up over last year’s opening three by 6% in 18-49 rating (12.7 vs. 12.0) and by 14% in total viewers (29.0 million vs. 25.4 million).

Many had surmised the current edition of “Idol” would follow the likes of “Survivor” and “The Bachelor” in seeing some ratings slippage by year three, but this week’s numbers suggest otherwise.

Last January, “American Idol 2″ opened in the 29-30 share range in adults 18-49 (compared with 31 this time around), settled in at around 24-25 for a while and then built back up to a 27 in the weeks leading up to the finale, which did a 36.

Rivals are certainly hoping this past week reps a peak for “Idol.”

‘Apprentice’ sorcery

One week after impressing with big numbers in a second Thursday post-“Friends” seg, the unscripted “Apprentice” settled for less than half the ratings in its regular Wednesday-at-8 slot opposite “Idol” (4.9/12 in 18-49, 12.33m).

Still, there were plenty of positive signs for “The Apprentice,” which built nicely on the half-hour and delivered the best numbers for any program opposite “Idol” this week. It also posted NBC’s best results with a regular program in the slot in nearly three years.

Other firstrun shows, including ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” and the WB’s “Smallville” hit some season lows opposite “Idol.”

Heat is on in ‘OC’

In Wednesday’s 9 o’clock hour, first-year Fox sudser “The OC” established new highs (5.6/13 in 18-49, 12.72m) despite retaining less than half of its “Idol” lead-in. “OC” held onto larger chunks in 18-34 (6.7/18) and teens (7.6/21) and led its hour in all 18-49 and younger breakouts.

ABC’s “The Bachelorette” (5.2/12 in 18-49, 11.56m) ran second to “OC” in most categories, but battled the latter to a virtual draw in 18-49 and total viewers in the 9:30 half-hour.

Nationals for Tuesday, meanwhile, delivered more good news for UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model,” which built its overall audience in week two — to 4.93 million, a network record for its 9 o’clock hour. This came despite delays in most key markets due to the State of the Union address.

A replay of “Top Model” on Wednesday also did pretty well (1.6/4 in 18-49, 3.93m), coming within a tick of a firstrun “Angel” on the WB in 18-34 (1.8/5 vs. 1.9/5).

The WB’s “One Tree Hill,” the other entertainment option for broadcast viewers on Tuesday at 9 opposite the State of the Union, set new highs in adults 18-49 (1.7/4) and total viewers (4.35 million) with its first original episode in two months.

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