Unlike wary shows, sports are still a lock

Ratings for most of television’s top primetime series and annual events have gradually declined over the years, but there’s one form of programming that has held up better than most: sports.

Advertisers pay big bucks for “TiVo-proof” programming like pro football and baseball’s postseason, and the network carriers of these games are at a big advantage in the ratings race. It’s a foregone conclusion, for example, that Fox — home this year to the Super Bowl, World Series and college football’s national title game — will win the season.

And because the biggest sporting events often tower over the Nielsens for entertainment programs, it behooves programmers to maximize the opportunities they present.

CBS will look to take advantage of a mammoth audience (perhaps 40 million) on Nov. 4 when the Indianapolis Colts play the New England Patriots in a 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff. Net last week made the no-brainer choice of canceling its weak Sunday 8 p.m. rookie drama “Viva Laughlin” and replaced it with the latest edition of “The Amazing Race,” which revs up that night.

With the game ending at about 7:30 p.m. ET (and a postgame a good choice to air until 8), “Race” could be looking at a lead-in of roughly 30 million viewers — more than “Survivor,” “CSI” or anything else on the Eye sked could hope to provide.

It has been argued that the sports audience is a borrowed viewership in that these viewers aren’t necessarily those that watch primetime series on the nets. But under what other scenario could CBS give an entertainment show’s premiere such a lofty launch?

And non-sports fans of “Race” will know to tune in at 8 o’clock too, so the sports lead-in is just gravy — and a bucket full of it at that.

“Race” was a good choice, but it would have been nice to see CBS launch a new show behind the game at 8. The best example of such a move in recent years was when the web followed the AFC Champ ionship game in January 2005 with drama “Numbers” — a show that’s been a ratings winner ever since.

Fox will get its biggest football audience of the fall one week later (Nov. 11) when the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants meet at 4:15 p.m.

“The Simpsons” is the likely beneficiary of the 30 million-plus aud funneled into the 8 o’clock hour, but this might be one time that Fox should take a chance by previewing a new drama, comedy or reality show.

ABC won’t have quite as big an audience on Nov. 18 for its final race of the NASCAR Nextel Cup chase, but it has smartly skedded the race’s conclusion for the 7 o’clock hour, leading into the “American Music Awards” at 8.

The Alphabet’s usual lineup, anchored by “Desperate Housewives,” skews female, so this was an ideal way of combining a male-driven sporting event with the rare ABC Sunday primetime that offers something for the guys.

About the only other opportunity ABC gets at a big sports lead-in will be the Rose Bowl football contest on Jan. 1.

But rather than follow it with a repeat of “Wife Swap” as it did a year ago, the net should program more aggressively — at the very least with a popular theatrical that could take advantage of a broad audience on a Monday night when no other net figures to air firstrun series.

After all, once football season ends, the only programming that will funnel more than 25 million viewers into the show airing behind it is Fox’s “American Idol.” So if you’re a net other than Fox, it’s time to think outside the box and let America’s love for sports work in your favor.

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