As the second half of the season begins, the nets are lodged in an unprecedented four-way tie for ratings supremacy.
But that won’t last for long.
Fox, which traditionally has been the strongest finisher, will pull away from the pack beginning this week as “American Idol” returns. In fact, the net has a chance to win the season by the largest margin of any net in the last 20 years.
Although baseball’s World Series and college football’s Bowl Championship Series didn’t produce the best matchups or ratings results for Fox, it’s hard to imagine the sports-loaded net not earning huge numbers for the final two games of the NFL season.
Fox will get both the NFC Championship game in primetime on Jan. 20 and the Super Bowl (perhaps featuring an undefeated New England Patriots) two weeks later.
That, combined with the multi-night “Idol” and a lack of original episodes of scripted hits on its rivals, will carry Fox — the only net performing ahead of last year’s pace through 15 weeks — into potentially record-setting territory.
Since Nielsen began tracking the 18-49 demo with People Meters in the 1987-88 season, the prior largest margin of victory came in 1997-98 when NBC topped second-place Fox by 34% (6.7 to 5.0). Fox won last season by 11%, and its margin this time around should top 30%.
Overall, compared with last year, the top five English-language broadcast nets were down a combined 6% in 18-49 rating through the first 15 weeks (14.3 vs. 15.2), and it’s likely that decline will grow without original episodes of top scripted hits down the stretch.
If the strike is settled by early March, though, some shows could close out the season in May with a handful of original segs. Until then at least, look for heaping servings of reality fare.
Here’s what to look for in the season’s second half:
The Alphabet took the early lead this season, but is now in the middle of the pack without fresh episodes of its top shows.
“Dancing With the Stars” spinoff “Dance War” looks to be a solid addition, while old reliables like “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” are pitching in on Wednesday. Still, the lack of fresh “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Desperate Housewives” episodes will sting.
Fortunately, “Lost” is back for eight weeks, where it should shine in its high-profile Thursday slot. It will also provide a nice lead-in for likable new drama “Eli Stone,” giving the net a good chance to stay on top on the night through winter’s end.
“Oprah’s Big Give” is a potential reality breakout, and is smartly skedded Sundays at 9 behind “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” But new drama “Cashmere Mafia,” which bowed last week, is already looking like a dud.
Net is pretty lean right now, but should perk up when reality vets “Big Brother” and “Survivor” kick off next month. “Brother,” in its first edition out of summer, gives the net a multi-night player that will deliver consistently.
“Jericho,” canceled by the net last May before viewer outcry brought it back, should get a good shot at succeeding opposite mostly repeats, while encores of Showtime’s “Dexter” will air in place of “Shark” on Sunday.
What CBS lacks is a potential breakout show that can compensate for ho-hum numbers the net will deliver most nights with repeats. Probably the net’s best bet is the yet-unskedded gameshow “Million Dollar Password,” with Regis Philbin as host.
Determined to reverse its second-half slide of a year ago, NBC is off to a good start in the new year thanks to an aggressive rollout of firstrun programming.
“American Gladiators” opened very well, and new seasons of “Biggest Loser” and “The Apprentice” came back stronger than expected.
“Gladiators” gives the net a strong stand-alone reality show like it had with “Fear Factor.” And don’t be surprised to see NBC use episodes of the male-skewing show (perhaps even repeats) opposite Fox’s “Idol.”
NBC also has a good bench of crime drama vets with the likes of “Medium” and “Law & Order,” whose originals should outperform crime reruns on CBS. And repurposed repeats of USA hits “Monk” and “Psych” could find a new, bigger aud on the Peacock.
Controversial reality show “Baby Borrowers” should also create some buzz and decent ratings on Mondays.
An unsung hero for the net is “Deal or No Deal,” which can play anywhere, anytime and has consistently provided strong lead-ins for premiering Peacock skeins.
Net has rejiggered its sked a couple of times, but one constant remains: It can count on anywhere between 2 and 5 hours of “American Idol” every week through May.
Biggest hopes elsewhere for Fox lie in drama “Sarah Connor Chronicles” and reality show “The Moment of Truth.” Net also has a couple of comedies and dramas to try out, although expectations are low.
Elsewhere, “House” will get a post-Super Bowl airing, which should boost numbers for its remaining original and repeat segs this season when the show shifts to its new Monday slot. And look for big numbers from “Hell’s Kitchen” when it plays behind “Idol” on Tuesdays beginning in April.
Fresh segs of “One Tree Hill” will help the struggling net, as will the shift of its comedy block, led by “Everybody Hates Chris,” to Sunday. And No. 1 show “America’s Next Top Model” will be back later in winter.
“Crowned” hasn’t worked, but hopes are higher for “Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious,” which will air on Mondays at 9 to avoid Fox’s “Idol.” In a smart move designed to find new viewers, the net is also re-launching “Gossip Girl” on Mondays at 8 — again, away from “Idol,” and in a new slot and time.
Fox will cruise to victory, and ABC should finish second, although a strike that lasts through to spring could help NBC steal the silver.