With the summer hit "Dancing With the Stars" now set to cut in on Thursday nights starting in January, some of ABC's competitors are considering some fancy footwork of their own.
Fox is weighing a shift of television's top-rated series, "American Idol," to Thursday to grab a greater share of the massive amounts of movie marketing dollars studios lavish on the night. NBC may follow suit with a bold move of "My Name Is Earl," which has emerged as primetime's top-rated comedy in the coveted adults 18-49 demographic.
To be sure, no one can know whether the industry chatter about these potential scheduling shifts are trial balloons or strong considerations; programming brass often engage in the kind of posturing and politicking commonly seen among contestants on another Thursday asset, CBS' "Survivor."
But in stark contrast to the stability the broadcasters are preaching as they head into the November sweep period Thursday, no one is ruling out the possibility of a major scheduling shakeup on TV's most lucrative night as the new year approaches.
"We think about it, we've talked about it, it's a possibility," Preston Beckman, executive vp strategic program planning at Fox, said of a Thursday "Idol" move. "But right now we have the right plan going forward for our schedule."
Fox made a big move on the night last season in relocating its teen fave "The O.C." to 8 p.m. Thursday, where it has given the network a pulse on a night where it had long been D.O.A.
NBC brass also are treading cautiously with "Earl," given the risks of messing with the good fortune the Jason Lee comedy show has found on Tuesday.
"It's something we'll look at really carefully," Mitch Metcalf, executive vp program planning and scheduling at NBC, said of the prospect of moving "Earl." "The last thing we want to do is damage an asset."
The jockeying for position is a continuation of a trend first triggered at May's "upfront" advertising market, when several networks made bold scheduling changes while the network that once owned the night, NBC, has stuck with a shaky lineup that has only grown weaker this season.
"I think the thing with Thursday night is, it's not the daunting night it used to be," Beckman said. "Everyone feels they can go in and make some noise."
Beckman would not speculate on specific "Idol" scheduling strategies, but the most commonly heard scenario among the rumblings in broadcaster boardrooms this week was Fox pushing the results show from Wednesday to 9 p.m. Thursday, replacing new drama "Reunion." That also would keep "Idol" away from ABC's sophomore drama "Lost," which has only picked up steam in its new Wednesday 9 p.m. time slot.
Many doubt that Fox would dare alter a franchise it has so carefully and conservatively cultivated over the years; some suggest the network is simply feeding the rumor bill to keep competitors off balance. Peter Liguori, president of entertainment at Fox, may be loath to put himself in the position of being the man who hurt "Idol" so early in his new job; the Wednesday hour is estimated to command more than $700,000 from advertisers for a 30-second spot, making it the most expensive primetime slot.
But Liguori also may be feeling emboldened now that Fox is seeing strength elsewhere on the schedule, including the successful launch of Monday drama "Prison Break" and the continuing strength of 9 p.m. Tuesday drama "House."
As for NBC, "Earl" may not command "Idol" ad prices yet, but moving it could represent an even bigger risk. The Tuesday 9 p.m. comedy is a huge point of pride for a struggling network that may not want to jeopardize a good thing.
That said, the 9 p.m. Tuesday hour is not a total success story for NBC. The 9:30 p.m. comedy "The Office" is retaining just 56% of its 18-49 lead-in, according to Nielsen Media Research figures. Although the retention has trended up in recent weeks, it's still the weakest retention rate among all comedy pairings on the Big Four. But would "Earl's" scruffy charms work better opposite the slicker urban stylings of NBC's flagging Thursday comedies "Joey" or "Will & Grace?"
One commonly cited scenario is that NBC will double-pump "Earl" in some form, either moving its slot to 8 p.m. Thursday and repeating it Tuesday or stacking a repeat at 9:30 Tuesday to correct the lag in its "Office" lead-out.
Another question for NBC is timing. Thursday's serious declines would necessitate putting "Earl" in as soon as possible, but "Earl" may have to wait until March, when NBC is expected to institute changes all over the schedule backed by promotional power of its Winter Olympics coverage in the second half of February.
ABC isn't waiting until then, replacing 8 p.m. Thursday entry "Alias" (due to star Jennifer Garner's maternity leave) with "Dancing," the biggest summer hit since "Survivor" dawned in 2000. Although "Alias" and new drama "Night Stalker" improved ABC's 18-49 ratings by 11% over the previous year, there's room for improvement, said to Jeff Bader, executive vp ABC Entertainment.
"We need to do better on Thursday," he acknowledged.
The return of "Dancing" also raises other questions, including where on the schedule its results show will end up, whether "Alias" will eventually return to the same time slot and whether "Stalker" will last much longer on Thursdays too. In a brutal time slot, "Stalker" has averaged a paltry 2.1 rating/5 share in adults 18-49. "To go up against 'CSI,' we knew was a tough task to begin with," Bader said.
ABC's "Dancing" likely will take a sizable chunk of the audience left behind by "Survivor," which probably will be between seasons for most if not all of "Dancing's" eight-week run. ABC's decision to shift "Dancing" may also reflect a creeping vulnerability at CBS, even though the network has largely replaced NBC as the dominant force on Thursday. Nevertheless, all three CBS series are drooping versus year-ago numbers, particularly "Survivor," which is down 15% in 18-49. All in all, CBS is down 8% in 18-49 on the night.
Kelly Kahl, executive vp program planning and scheduling, isn't worried. "'Survivor' is down a little bit, but think of how resilient the show is," he said.
Fox and NBC aren't the only ones who may need to make midseason moves on Thursday. Although UPN has rejuvenated its lineup with "Everybody Hates Chris," the network may have to tinker with the rest of the night's lineup. "Chris," which averages a 2.4/7 in 18-49, is not boosting the likes of 8:30 p.m. entry "Eve" (1.5/4).
What might embolden a little Thursday experimentation is WB, which raised eyebrows by shifting two of its more established players, "Smallville" and "Everwood," strengthening its hand on the night, particularly with the young-male audience; "Smallville" takes in more men 18-34 than "Survivor."
"We feel not only we've established a toehold, but we planted a flag on what's arguably the most important TV night of the week," said Rusty Mintz, senior vp programming and scheduling at WB.
And then there is the school of thought that holds that "Dancing" and any other potential Thursday latecomers may only end up raising overall HUT (homes using television) levels on the night, giving everyone something to gain. When "Survivor" first moved to 8 p.m. Thursday in 2000, it carved out an audience without hobbling NBC's "Friends." Similarly, NBC's "The Apprentice" last year found its own sizable viewership in the shadow of CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in the 9 p.m. hour.
"Look historically at Thursday when shows have gone in there; it hasn't been a zero-sum game; they've added to the pie," Mintz said.
Andrew Wallenstein writes for The Hollywood Reporter.
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