Defining Shows/Overall Thoughts:
2003-04 was unofficially the last year of Must See TV (even if the slogan endured a bit longer), because NBC said goodbye to long-running sitcom Friends (300). The show's final season had the highest A18-49+ of any scripted show in the last decade. (Though it would've been much closer to the pack if not for the one-hour finale and its 24.9 demo rating.) The final season was a short one, but NBC was able to stretch the episodes across the whole season by airing originals only in the early fall and sweeps periods. It didn't hurt that the show usually pulled at least big hit-type numbers when in repeats.
It was also the final season for Must See staple Frasier (114), whose numbers had declined considerably since getting moved to Tuesday. Though ER (250) still had at least one more very strong season ahead of it, 2003-04 was the last that qualified as a megahit. A few other NBC vets like Will and Grace (186), Law and Order (144), Fear Factor (143) and Law and Order: CI (117) would live on as well but were never again nearly as strong as in the 2003-04 season.
While NBC may have appeared poised for a collapse (spoiler alert: it happened), the heavy hitters on CBS and Fox were in or approaching their primes. CSI (233) had a monster year, and the spring (all-star) edition of Survivor (211) was the franchise's last "megahit" season. CSI: Miami (173) and Everybody Loves Raymond (149) along with strong newbie Two and a Half Men (137) held up Monday, which was really CBS' only strong night other than Thursday.
Fox had not yet developed the depth that would make the network so strong circa 2010. But a lot of it was forgiven because American Idol (268/255) continued its ascent. Beyond that? A few kind of decent players... The Simpsons (125), the last solid season of That '70s Show (121) and 24 (110).
One concern in terms of the "league average" for this season is the rather large volume of original programming still being aired on Saturday. Only NBC had totally bailed on the night, while CBS was still all-original with shows like Star Search (47), Hack (39) and The District (46). I was afraid this had deflated the number for 2003-04, because the league average is almost exactly the same in each of these three new seasons. That's a far cry from the 2006-07 to present trend, which has brought about a 9% average decline per year.
Ultimately I don't think this a big enough part of the "problem" to seek out a radical solution. A big part of the overall league average steadiness in 2004-05 can probably be attributed to the absolutely phenomenal development season, and the important factors like DVR and cable originals were not quite as massive factors yet. So it makes sense that primetime was a little steadier prior to about 2006.
Big Hits: Coupling (154)
Hits: Two and a Half Men (137)
Solid: Las Vegas (122), The OC (105)
Sub-solid renewals: Cold Case (86), Hope and Faith (77), Arrested Development (68), NCIS (67), Joan of Arcadia (65), Tru Calling (45)
Renews by network: ABC 1, CBS 4, NBC 1, Fox 3
In terms of how the shows appeared in year one, 2003-04 may have been the worst scripted development season of the last decade, which is really saying something. The median new show had just a 66 A18-49+, tied with 2008-09 for the lowest in the last decade, and the percentage of flops was just enormous (if perhaps a bit inflated because there were a ton of shows in the 65-69 range). The only "big hit" of the year was sort of an even more exaggerated version of 2011-12's high-rated but one-and-done Rob; NBC's Coupling was greatly inflated by an enormous lead-in and cancelled after just four episodes.
You could argue that future seasons made this class look better, especially in CBS' case. Only two of the nine renewals, Joan of Arcadia and Tru Calling (the latter an extraordinarily generous renewal to begin with), got axed after just one more season. The CBS renewals not named Joan greatly brightened the strength of this class; Cold Case turned in a seven-season run with this same kind of upper-80's A18-49+ for most of it, while we all know how valuable Two and a Half Men and NCIS have become.
The first half of the aughts was the golden age of reality TV, at least in terms of developing new ones, and a couple very long-running ones came out of this season: The Apprentice (a phenomenal 241 mixed into NBC's Must See Thursday) and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (101), which would build considerably the next season.
In case you didn't get this vibe from the "defining shows" section, this was really the last year of the NBC that everyone always fondly looks back on when blasting the network's current state. It's the only "league average" season for NBC in the ten-year A18-49+ era, and they're actually wayyy above said league average. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also one of the worst seasons for each of the other three big networks. CBS, probably deflated a bit because of all its original Saturday programming, has only gone this low one time since (the 2007-08 writer's strike season), while Fox had another rather weak season in 2004-05 but then began an ascent and has never returned to these depths either. (But they might get very close this year.)
But none of that compares to the dismal state ABC was in here. 2003-04 is the only real portrait A18-49+ has of what ABC looked like in between the collapse of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the 2004-05 miracle season. An 83 A18-49+ is still a little better than where NBC has ended up for much of the last decade, but that's no achievement. It's still more than 10 points below any other ABC, CBS or Fox season of the last nine years! ABC was a network full of mediocre players and very light on hits: According to Jim (108), 8 Simple Rules (a 96 heavily inflated by the episodes right after John Ritter's death), Alias (92), The Practice (86), Extreme Makeover (83) and Friday newbie success Hope and Faith (77).
A decade ago, there were two netlets, and both were considerably stronger than the CW we know today (which has about a 30). They were also at least as strong as the CW in its first season (41) three years later; however, that's not gonna remain the case.
Days of the Week:
The last year of NBC dominance was also the last year of dominance by their strongest night of the week. It's kind of amazing that Thursday was such an incredibly-rated night considering two networks were basically off the map. ABC was still limping through it's pre-Grey's days (this year with James "One" Shade favorite Threat Matrix) while Fox was even worse with Tru Calling.
American Idol was not quite strong enough (and perhaps more significantly, didn't air enough) to lift Tuesday/Wednesday to the extent that it would lift them in the coming years. Broadcast TV also had an extremely noticeable Sunday problem this season. There were decent enough anchors on the night, from The Simpsons (125) to Law and Order: CI (117) to Alias (92). CBS was airing decent-rated newbie Cold Case (87) and movies. But nothing else had emerged. But (spoiler alert!) the weakest night and weakest network were about to collide in an incredible way...
Time of Day:
I haven't done the "time of day" post; it's coming sometime in the near future. But here's a look at the numbers from this season to date, just to preview:
We'll talk about this a lot more soon, but the general point is that the balance of ratings power has clearly shifted from the second half of primetime to the first half over the last decade. And that 92 for the broadcasters at 8:00 was with Friends still in the 8:00 slot!
Repeats & Sports/Specials:
NOTE: For those with truly incredible memories, you might notice that the rerun/movie/sports/specials numbers on these two posts are a bit different. Turns out I was calculating their A18-49+'s compared to overall averages rather than original-only averages. The numbers were wrong, but fortunately they were all wrong in the same direction, so the points around which those posts were formed still stand. They're corrected now.
These numbers, compared with the 2012-13 numbers to date...
...really illustrate how drastically primetime TV outside of originals has changed. You could argue the networks have gotten a bit of a break ratings-wise because of how well sports have held up over the years, but they've given all of that back and more because they're simply not able to use reruns and movies as scheduling filler to the same degree they could a decade ago. In 2003-04, the average rerun pulled a whooping three-fourths the rating of the average original, while the average movie did about two-thirds. Nowadays, they're below half. Regular "movie nights" were still a thing in 2003-04; CBS still aired movies in the second half of Sunday prime, while ABC used them for most of the Monday void after Monday Night Football departed.
The rerun number is a bit inflated this particular year because NBC aired so many Friends repeats; its seven point drop to 69 in 2004-05 was a much larger drop than the two to three point typical decline over the last decade.
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