Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fourth and Fabulous, or Why 4th Place Isn't Death

I try not to get too hung up in what place a show finishes in among the shows in its timeslot, because ultimately it isn't all that important. Shows compete for audience members against shows in the same timeslot, but they don't compete for renewal against shows in the same timeslot. They compete against the other shows on the network. That means that finishing 4th place in your timeslot isn't necessarily a death sentence, if you have three legit competitors fighting for viewers.

There have been 4th place success stories in the recent past. Certainly Gordon Ramsay knows all about it, as his Kitchen Nightmares was a very admirable 4th in its initial Wednesday run competing against Criminal Minds and potent newbies Private Practice and Bionic Woman in the opening weeks of the '07-'08 season. It got renewed (and went on to finish a less-admirable 4th on Thursdays). Hell's Kitchen was in absolutely no danger even though it often pulled 4th against Grey's, CSI, and The Office/30 Rock during spring 2009.

For that matter, we could mention 30 Rock, which regularly lost to Hell's in the 9:30 half-hour even if it had a slight edge across the whole hour paired with The Office. That's another one that's not going away.

But for now, we'll look at even more contemporary examples: 4 shows on the air this fall.

Heroes (NBC)
In one of TV's toughest timeslots, Monday at 8pm, Heroes pulls 4th-place behind Fox's House, ABC's Dancing with the Stars, and CBS' combo of How I Met Your Mother and Accidentally on Purpose. Heroes is constantly bagged on for a couple reasons other than the fact that it finishes in 4th: 1) Everybody on the Internet, myself included, seems to hate it now. 2) The ER Effect - instead of comparing it to the rest of its network, people compare it to what its ratings used to be.

And yet, despite being admittedly a shadow of its former self, there's really only one scripted show on NBC (The Office) that we can say is without question stronger. SVU may also be a bit stronger. Heroes has fallen a long way, creatively and ratings-wise, and maybe it should go away, but I think this show is much more in play for another year than many would like to think. TVByTheNumbers has it moving on to a season 5 if the season ended today. I wouldn't be stunned either way.

Dancing with the Stars Results (ABC)
The DWTS results show has generally pulled somewhere between a 2.5 and 3.0 this season, but that's been on several occasions not enough to finish better than 4th or a tie for 3rd, up against the likes of new hit NCIS:LA, NBC reality property The Biggest Loser, and Fox's So You Think You Can Dance or Hell's Kitchen. Last season the show often couldn't overcome any of The Mentalist, Fringe, or The Biggest Loser. People like to blame the lead-in/lead-out for Dancing's declines on this evening, but it was considerably stronger even last year when surrounded by Opportunity Knocks and Eli Stone, which were arguably even weaker help than Shark Tank and The Forgotten have been.

But let's face it, Dancing isn't going away, at least not for a couple years. The franchise can't necessarily thank the Tuesday show for that, but getting two hours of upper-3s on Mondays is just not something the network can do without. Perhaps we'll see the show taking up fewer hours on the schedule in coming years, but for now, Dancing results will be fine with 4th.

Law & Order: SVU (NBC)
Trailing an old tentpole, CBS' Criminal Minds, and two hip new successful hours in Fox's Glee and ABC's Modern Family/Cougar Town, Law & Order: SVU's mid-2 demos haven't been good enough to creep out of the big 4 basement. The move from the 10pm hour thanks to Jay Leno has not been good to SVU's ratings, and neither has Criminal Minds, a more legitimate piece of crime drama competition than anything CBS ever threw against it during its run on Tuesday.

And yet, at those numbers, it's still the highest rated drama on the peacock, which means it's probably not in serious danger despite a pretty high price tag for its two leads. As people get to SVU at 9, perhaps it could even overtake one of the newer hours, but that may well not happen especially with Glee looking at an Idol lead-in down the road. Still, fourth is fine.

Fringe (FOX)
For some reason, people seemed to expect the world of Fringe, and that has certainly not been delivered. Since all three of its daunting competitors joined the hour (ABC's Grey's Anatomy, CBS' CSI, and NBC's The Office) the Fox sci-fi drama hasn't even broken a 2.5 demo. In the low-2's, it's frankly a distant 4th.

But is it dead? I don't think so. Here's what I posted a couple weeks before Fringe's season premiere on PIFeedback:

I think a lot of the expectations for this show are too high. I'd be pretty surprised if it broke a 3.0 demo once everything is in play. I think it can survive in that brutal timeslot with a 2.5ish but I don't know that it can consistently even get that. I hope I'm proven wrong, but there are a lot of young adults already watching stuff in this hour..."

Not quoting that to brag. ;-) I'm saying that these results were almost inevitable, even if a certain PIFeedbacker has decided once he's seen the Season 2 ratings that he doesn't like the show anymore. Going from huge lead-ins to OK lead-ins with considerably stronger competition is a tough transition. I think at a 2.0+ in what is honestly the toughest hour for scripted on TV means Fringe could continue to be in play for another season. I feel pretty darn unsure about this, and so is TVByTheNumbers, but Fox had to know what they were getting into here. I don't think they could've conceivably imagined doing better than 4th place, even though that seemed to be the expectation from many people.

All right, that's it! We'll see how the above 4 shows continue to progress, though I'm almost 100% sure at least two of these fourth-placers will see '10-'11 and it wouldn't stun me if 3 or 4 did. I don't think any of them are bonafide failures compared to the rest of their networks during this particular season.

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