NBC looking good, but ABC could catch it

NBC had a strong start thanks to football and “The Voice,” and Fox is always capable of getting on a second-half roll with “American Idol,” but it’s a pretty safe bet that steady CBS will capture its first seasonal title in TV’s prized demo.

So while there may not be much drama as to the year’s overall winner, that still leaves what could be a down-to-the-wire race between NBC and ABC to avoid the Big Four basement.

Each net still has some midseason shows that could help swing the balance in its favor. And there’s something of a rivalry in that these two have been here before: ABC and NBC tied for third in adults 18-49 in each of the past two seasons, with the Alphabet winning, if you extrapolate to hundredths, in 2011, and the Peacock edging ahead last year.

In handicapping the race, NBC has the clear inside track, having built a sizable advantage through the first half of the season. The combination of “Sunday Night Football,” “The Voice” and hot new drama “Revolution” gave it a small advantage over even CBS for the first three months of the season.

But with football over and both “The Voice” and “Revolution” resting until late March, NBC is in the midst of a predictably tough patch.

According to Nielsen, the Peacock led by nearly six-tenths of a ratings point over the Alphabet through Jan. 27 (2.85 to 2.26), and that’s with ABC finishing ahead of NBC for the latter half of January. But ABC, with a few more victories over its rival, coupled with its telecast of the Academy Awards on Feb. 24, could shave that advantage to about three-tenths, setting up some interesting weeks down the stretch.

For NBC, it would help if “Smash” (returning Feb. 5) can perform well without the “Voice” lead-in it had last season, or if new Thursday drama “Do No Harm” can do some damage. New reality dating show “Ready for Love” could be a key, since it will air for two hours on Sundays; and “The Voice” might need to continue to dominate ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” like it did in the fall.

ABC has to hope that either of its dramas preeming over the next few weeks — “Zero Hour” on Thursday or “Red Widow” on Sunday — can provide a spark in some black-hole timeslots for the net. Also in question is whether “Scandal” can continue to click on Thursday, and if either reality show “Celebrity Diving” or “Bet on Your Baby” is capable of making some late-season noise.

There’s already been some gamesmanship between the rivals, with ABC skedding a special two-hour edition of “The Bachelor” (usually a Monday show) on Tuesday, Feb. 5 opposite NBC’s two-hour season premiere of “Smash,” which targets a similar upscale, female audience.

It’s safe to say it won’t be the last strategic move in the struggle to sidestep the cellar.

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