Seesaw season nails big finish

'Idol' sings; reality rocked

A roller-coaster season for the Big Six ended Wednesday — and fittingly, a reality show provided a closing high note for the year.

Despite double-digit declines over last year, the third-season finale of “American Idol” powered Fox to a dominant win for the night. Even more significantly, “Idol” pushed the net closer to first place than it’s ever been for a full season.

With the final Nielsen numbers tallied, NBC still won the season among adults 18-49, averaging a 4.2/12 in the key demo. But Fox was right behind, with a 4.1/11, followed by CBS (3.9/11) and ABC (3.2/9).

Eye took the total viewers crown in a walk and also snagged a win in adults 25-54 for the first time in nearly a quarter-century (Daily Variety, May 26).

Demo drama

Only real drama at season’s end came in the adults 18-49 race.

Last year, two-tenths of a ratings point separated Fox and NBC — and Peacock topper Jeff Zucker earlier in the week made a big deal out of a projection that NBC would once again beat Fox, this time by three-tenths of a ratings point.

But a combination of “Idol’s” strength — and NBC’s lackluster perf the past two nights with a sked filled with repeats — gave Fox enough ammo to finish just one-tenth of a point behind the Peacock.

It’s appropriate that an unscripted skein like “Idol” should put Fox closer to first place than ever before.

For all of the nets, 2003-04 will be remembered as the season without a script, a time when reality took its place alongside comedies and dramas as one of the fundamental building blocks of network skeds.

Of the 20 top-rated skeins among adults 18-49, a stunning nine programs were reality shows. A reality skein was the top-rated show in the key demo for ABC (“The Bachelor”), NBC (“The Apprentice,” tied with “Friends”), Fox (“American Idol”) and UPN (“America’s Next Top Model”).

Fox was the king of reality this season, cranking out two new reality franchises (“The Simple Life,” “The Swan”) and a top 10 unscripted smash (“My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance”) to join “American Idol,” “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” on its reality hit list.

NBC launched two new reality hits with “The Apprentice” and “Average Joe,” while “Fear Factor” remained the genre’s unsung hero. ABC also found light at the end of the tunnel with “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which has suddenly made the Alphabet a Sunday player.

“Top Model,” meanwhile, proved UPN could launch a buzzworthy unscripted hit. CBS didn’t take any big chances on reality this season, but “Survivor” remained a Thursday powerhouse. (Summer stalwarts “Big Brother” and “Amazing Race” return in July.)

Reality also helped the nets get back on their feet after a rocky start to the season.

“The Apprentice” (along with the return of “Crossing Jordan”) allowed NBC to finish off the year much stronger than it started, though the Peacock was still down 7% vs. 2002-03. Fox fumbled in the fall, but it was “The Simple Life” in December (along with strong frosh player “The OC”) that kept Fox in the game until “Idol” returned.

And it’s hard to imagine just where ABC might have ended the season without “The Bachelor” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” along with “Extreme Makeover,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and even the underappreciated “Celebrity Mole” franchise.

‘Model’ performance

UPN also saw its seasonlong momentum fade a bit once “Model” left the air earlier this spring. It’ll be back for two cycles next season.

Not surprisingly, the net that suffered the biggest drop this season — the WB, which declined 17% in adults 18-49 — didn’t have a single breakout reality hit.

WB topper Jordan Levin, however, said Thursday that he feels comfortable about where the Frog is headed into fall.

“We ended the season with three of our signature dramas hitting season-to-date highs,” he said. “We’re very close, within spitting distance, to ABC and CBS in persons 12-34 and females 18-34.”

As for the race to the end of the season, Fox pulled out all the “Idol” stops to narrow the gap separating it from NBC. Last week alone, Fox aired a whopping six hours of “Idol”-related programming, running some sort of “Idol” show five of seven nights.

Earlier in the May sweeps, NBC relied just as heavily on the finales of “Friends” and “Frasier,” packing its sked with clip shows, encores and special editions of “Dateline” tied to the skein’s swan songs.

“Idol” remained a powerhouse for Fox throughout the season, bucking reality show history — and most industry forecasts — by actually increasing its ratings in its third season.

Overall, the Tuesday/Wednesday franchise was up 7% among adults 18-49 (10.8/29 vs. 10.1/26) and 16% in total viewers (25.2 vs. 21.7 million). Tuesday edition of the FremantleMedia/19 Entertainment skein was the top-rated show on any net in viewers and adults 18-49.

“Idol” did suffer, however, from a final matchup far less thrilling than last year’s Clay vs. Reuben smackdown. With Fantasia Barrino considered the odds-on fave to win, Wednesday’s finale didn’t come close to matching last year’s ratings perf.

Airing from 8:38-10 p.m., the “Idol” finale averaged a still-hefty 13.2/33 and 31.4 million viewers.

Down from last year

That’s down 21% in the demo and 18% in viewers vs. last year. Aud declines seemed steepest among young males: Finale slipped more than 40% among men 18-34. Teen viewership was also down sharply.

Fox blamed part of the decline on the calendar. This year’s finale aired nearly a week later than last year’s May 21 sendoff, and the number of people 18-49 using TV was down 10% vs. 2003.

Nonetheless, the combo of the finale and a pre-show gave Fox its third highest-rated night ever in both viewers and demos, excluding sports telecasts. And in adults 18-49, Fox’s Wednesday perf ranks second only to “Friends” finale night as the top-rated night for any net with nonsports programming this season.

What’s more, other reality shows have suffered bigger dropoffs between their second and third seasons. “Survivor,” for example, dipped 30% between its second and third season finales.

Wednesday night also marked the end of the May sweeps. As expected, NBC won in adults 18-49, while CBS topped in total viewers (see charts).

Other nets no factor

No other network was even a factor on Wednesday, with Fox outrating the five other nets combined among adults 18-49.

Eye’s telecast of “The Country Music Awards” matched last year’s lackluster perf in adults 18-49 and was down a tad in viewers. NBC couldn’t get arrested with a night of “Law & Order” repeats, while ABC’s all original lineup of “My Wife and Kids,” a “Bachelor” special and the last night of “Super Millionaire” failed to impress.