‘Shark’ sets sights on NBC prey

Medical drama opened season strong

“ER” hasn’t flatlined, but the NBC vet’s vulnerabilities have its competitors smelling blood. And a “Shark” appears ready to pounce.

The medical drama opened the season strong, but its sizable ratings advantages have evaporated as the season has progressed. And now the 10 o’clock hour on television’s most important night is up for grabs.

James Woods legal/crime drama “Shark” is the leading candidate to topple “ER,” closing the demo gap in recent weeks while easily winning the hour in total viewers. It’s not in the same league as “Without a Trace,” the hit missing-persons drama that vacated the plum post-“CSI” slot six months ago after overtaking “ER” for a few years, but CBS has to feel pretty good about its position.

Through Feb. 18, “Shark” was averaging a 3.8 rating in adults 18-49 and 13.5 million viewers overall, ranking fourth and second, respectively, among all new hourlongs this season, according to Nielsen.

But the most encouraging news for CBS is that it has the hot show: “Shark” is on the rise while “ER,” now in its 13th season, is on the decline.

In their first three head-to-head matchups last fall, “ER” dominated “Shark” in adults 18-49 (6.3 to 4.0 on average), but in their first three showdowns in the February sweep, the NBC skein led just 4.9 to 4.2.

“Shark” has retained 56% of its 18-49 lead-in from “CSI” this season, but that number has grown to 61% over its last five airings. It also has achieved a series-best 4.4 rating with three of its last seven firstrun airings.

ABC, too, has begun to cut into “ER’s” lead, but its rookie 10 o’clock entry “Men in Trees” remains in third place and retains well less than 50% of its substantial lead-in from “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The Alphabet is strong both at 8 with “Ugly Betty” and at 9 with “Grey’s,” so it can afford to nurture its final piece of the Thursday puzzle. For the night, ABC is regularly beating former champ CBS in demos, but it could open up some breathing room if it fared better at 10.

Original episodes of “Men,” on average, have retained just 38% of their “Grey’s Anatomy” 18-49 lead-in since moving to the time period on Nov. 30. This is the same retention “Six Degrees” exhibited with the five firstrun episodes it aired since its premiere.

But “Men” does have some momentum going, hitting series highs with each of its last two episodes in February and catching “ER” in some young-female demos.

For its part, “ER” remains a key part of NBC’s sked — one of only a handful of timeslot winners for the fourth-place net — but it’s clearly showing its age. Coming out of struggling comedy “30 Rock,” it’s also at the biggest lead-in disadvantage it’s experienced, making do with a fraction of the audience that “Grey’s” provides “Men in Trees” or “CSI” supplies to “Shark.”

NBC finds itself in something of a no-win situation with the show, too: “ER” will return next season, but it would be of little value to the net anywhere but Thursdays at 10, so it’s almost compelled to keep it there.

But that only opens the door for its rivals to take advantage of the potent lead-ins from their 9 o’clock programs. And if it isn’t “Shark” that bites “ER,” another show on either CBS or ABC eventually will.

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