Unexpected hits, big-time flops shake up the established order

Seismic shifts dramatically reshaped the network TV landscape this fall — and the aftershocks are still being felt.

It’s already been a jaw-dropping four months in the small-screen season, with some unexpected hits (“Desperate Housewives,” “Lost”) and several big-time flops (“Father of the Pride,” “The Next Great Champ”) combining to shake up the established order.

Longtime leader NBC fell from grace while CBS continued its steady march to the top. Sitcoms become even more irrelevant to most Americans, and reality — while still potent — showed it’s not a foolproof genre when the idea behind a show seems stale.

Perhaps one of the fall’s biggest stories, however, was perennial laggard ABC. Net performed the most astounding Lazarus act in recent memory, surging to second place on the strength of two scripted success stories.

Now industry observers wonder whether ABC can continue its fall momentum into midseason, once “Monday Night Football” disappears. It’s also vital that the net figures out a way to somehow get into the game Thursdays.

Whatever happens, the Alphabet has already defied expectations and can safely put 2004-05 into its win column. “We were able to launch some shows and keep a consistent schedule, both of which were important to us,” says ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson, who’s been on the job barely six months. “Beyond that, we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

That certainly holds true for the folks at NBC.

Despite the fervent predictions of Peacock execs, it turns out losing “Friends” was the huge deal most outside observers had expected.

“Next year our Thursday night is going to be even stronger,” NBC topper Jeff Zucker confidently told advertisers in May, when he trotted out the net’s fall sked. On the same day, he boasted in the New York Times that “the replacement for ‘Friends’ would be Donald Trump.”

Zucker was wrong on both counts.

With “Friends” gone, NBC has surrendered its decadelong demo stranglehold on Thursday nights, with CBS now the clear leader among young adults on the most financially important night of the week.

What’s more, NBC’s “The Apprentice,” while still a big hit, failed to grow in its sophomore season and actually lost 20% of its aud from the first cycle.

It would be folly to count out any network with franchises such as “ER” and “Law & Order.” But after a fall that saw none of NBC’s new scripted shows break out, the Peacock has actually fallen to third place among total viewers, behind CBS and ABC. Even more amazing, CBS is ahead of NBC for the season among young demos.

“If you would have told me a year ago that we would be winning (adults) 18-49, I would have jumped over the moon,” says Viacom co-chief operating officer Leslie Moonves.

Indeed, the Eye’s ascendancy is more than just the story of the season. If the net can manage to hold on to its lead, it will mark a major sea change for network TV and perhaps serve as the final nail in the coffin for CBS’ rep as the geezer web.

There are plenty of obstacles that stand between Moonves and a seasonlong demo win, however.

One of those hurdles could be Fox. Even though the net had another terrible fall, it’s counting mightily on “American Idol” to return to the schedule with the same blockbuster ratings it averaged in its past three cycles. A lot of the young viewers who checked out CBS because of fumbles by Fox and NBC might return to the “Idol” nest when the show returns later this month.

Fox also is praying the cult following that has made “Family Guy” a DVD hit will follow it back to Fox — and bring some friends — when new episodes return this spring.

Moonves certainly isn’t counting out Fox. “As usual, they should have a great second half of the season,” he says.

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