Big 3 Networks Set To Slug It Out At 10 P.M.

Media buyers study the upcoming season’s schedules and see CBS continuing to win the final hour of primetime. In addition, Fox affiliates should get a nice lead-in boost for their 10 o’clock local newscasts from the highly-anticipated X-Factor at 9. Here is a night-by-night rundown.

Network affiliates should not expect much change in the pecking order of 10 p.m. program viewership among the Big Three networks for the upcoming 2011-12 season, and they shouldn’t expect any breakout hits that could result in lots of new viewers flowing into their 11 p.m. local newscasts, media buyers tell TVNewsCheck.

In analyzing the three networks’ nightly 10 p.m. schedules that will premiere next month, TV buyers believe that CBS will continue to dominate the hour with the most viewers most nights, followed by ABC then NBC. And Fox, whose 9 p.m. shows lead into its affiliates’ 10 o’clock late local newscasts, will get a boost from its new variety show X-Factor, predicted by media buyers to be the highest-rated new show this coming season.

Fox will make its affiliates happy by delaying the start of two shows to run X-Factor from 8 to 10 p.m. until Nov. 23 on Wednesdays and until Nov. 3 on Thursdays, leading directly into local news. 

While no one knows for sure how many viewers each show will bring in, and what the new competitive dynamic each night in the hour will be because of the new shows that will premiere, media agency research and programming executives make their living analyzing stuff like that. And their media buyers use not only each show’s predicted audience share versus the competition, but also their gut feelings after viewing each show’s pilot, to make their buying judgments in the upfront.

The 10 p.m. hour is not nearly as important to the broadcast networks from a ratings and profit aspect as it was for decades before 2000. Prior to 2000, most of the broadcast networks’ highest-quality and highest-rated shows — and the shows that brought in the largest amount of ad dollars — were in the 10 p.m. hour. And that was a good thing for affiliates since a sizable portion of the 11 p.m. local news audiences usually comes from the networks that viewers are watching from 10 to 11. 

Nothing proved that more than in 2009 when NBC decided to scrap its 10 p.m. scripted programming Monday-Friday and replace it with a nightly Jay Leno talk show. Viewership for NBC affiliates’ 11 p.m. news declined 15%-45% during the five months Leno was on the air. One NBC affiliate dropped from the most-viewed newscast in its market, to No. 2 in just five weeks.


The outcry by the affiliates was so loud that NBC canceled Leno and returned to scripted shows. But the network is still trying to recover.

And while CBS and ABC are doing better at 10 p.m., the hour is still not what it was a decade ago, before cable dramas began making inroads into the broadcast nets’ audience.

“For 21 consecutive years beginning in 1979, the Emmy Award for best drama went to a 10 p.m. show on one of the Big Three broadcast networks,” said Brad Adgate, executive VP of research at Horizon Media. “But in the past 10 years, not one 10 p.m. show on broadcast was an Emmy winner. The Golden Age of the 10 p.m. drama on the broadcast networks came to an end.”

“NBC did improve its 10 p.m. hour a little, but overall its program lineup and flow is still weak and is not going to help its affiliates’ 11 p.m. news that much more,” said Billie Gold, VP and director of programming at media agency Carat. “NBC did spend more money on its programming but it is not going to change in the viewer pecking order this season.”

Gold added, “CBS was No. 1 at 10 p.m. last season and they will still be No.1, although they may have gotten even a little stronger. ABC has some possible upside at 10 with Body of Proof there for an entire season this year and Castle having established itself in the time period. But overall there is no game changer for anyone.”

Francois Lee, VP and activation director at MediaVest, agreed with Gold about a lack of game changers and said the hour will pretty much play out for the broadcast networks like each night will, with CBS, ABC and NBC finishing in that order, except on Sunday when NBC has Sunday Night Football

SNF averaged about 20 million viewers last season, although it is on only in the fourth quarter of the year and then NBC has to build 10 o’clock again from scratch.

But Lee believes a good portion of those football viewers on Sunday nights are going to stay with NBC and watch the local news, since once the game ends, it will be past 11 and the NBC affiliates will be the only place to go. “The NBC affiliates should be able to capitalize on Sunday nights from that huge football lead-in,” he said.

Here is a look, night by night, at how the media buying community sees 10 p.m. playing out at the Big Three broadcast networks. Plus, what Fox has in store at 9 p.m.


NBC is premiering a new retro drama The Playboy Club, set in the 1960s but it will be going up against CBS’ second-year drama Hawaii Five-O which averaged 11.8 million viewers last season, and the ABC veteran detective drama Castle, which averaged 11.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen data.

One NBC affiliate, KSL Salt Lake City, whose parent company is owned by the Church of The Latter Day Saints, refused to air The Playboy Club, but NBC found another station, KMYU, a subchannel of CBS affiliate KUTV, that will pick it up.

“NBC has a big challenge on Mondays,” said Dave Campanelli, VP and director of national broadcast at Horizon Media. “Hawaii Five-O was the highest rated new show on television last year and Castle is solid. It remains to be seen how controversial The Playboy Club will be, and controversy could help with viewership, but it’s still going to be a challenge to beat those two shows.”

Amy Sotiridy, SVP and director of national broadcast at media agency Inititiative, adds, “There has been a lot of interest and buzz surrounding The Playboy Club, but not for the right reasons.”


CBS, which for most of last season won the 10 p.m. hour with its hit drama The Good Wife, averaging 13.6 million viewers a night, has moved that show to Sunday at 10 and replaced it with a new drama, Unforgettable, about an ex-police officer who has the ability to remember what happened on every day in the past.

Media buyers for the most part, believe this will be one of the fall’s more successful new shows. It stars Poppy Montgomery who co-starred in the long-running CBS drama Without a Trace, and she may have a built-in following among CBS viewers. The show should also appeal to viewers of The Good Wife, which also has a strong female lead character.

ABC will air Body of Proof starring Dana Delaney as a media examiner, which debuted on the network in this time period in the spring and actually drew slightly more viewers than The Good Wife.

NBC returns its critically acclaimed but ratings and viewer deficient family drama Parenthood to 10 p.m. The show averaged only 6.7 million viewers last season and many buyers believe NBC should have moved it to an earlier timeslot.

“ABC has a lot of potential upside with Body of Proof,” said Carat’s Billie Gold, “but Parenthood is more of a family show and should not be on at 10 p.m. But NBC had nowhere else to put it on earlier on any night.”

NBC is sold on airing reality show The Biggest Loser at 9 as Parenthood‘s lead-in, but many buyers believe the show is not that compatible and this is why Parenthood is not getting as big an audience from its lead-in as the other two networks’ shows do.


Two aging but still fairly potent dramas will be going head-to-head on this night, with CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NBC’s Law & Order: SVU competing for viewers with ABC newcomer Revenge. Last season on Thursday night at 9, CSI averaged 11.3 million viewers, while SVU in this same Wednesday 10 p.m. slot averaged 8.8 million. ABC’s Revenge, about a young woman who returns to the town of her childhood to get back at folks who hurt her family years earlier, could appeal to a younger female audience. 

Both CSI and SVU will have major cast changes with Ted Danson replacing Lawrence Fishburne on CSI and with Chris Meloni gone from SVU and his co-star Mariska Hargitay having a reduced role, appearing in only 13 of 22 episodes. So the hour could be up for grabs. Traditionally with prominent cast changes, early episode tune-in is high so CSI may get an early bump but it’s unclear if it will be able to sustain it.

Initiative’s Sotiridy believes SVU, despite losing Meloni, will do well based on the history of the show and previous cast changes over the years. “Cast changes can change the dynamic of a show, but SVU has had many cast changes over the years and has always continued to be successful. The show shouldn’t be impacted that much.”


Media buyers believe Thursday is NBC’s best chance of making some noise with a 10 p.m. show with its new drama Prime Suspect, based on the British drama, about a hardnosed police women trying to make it in an otherwise all-male detective bureau in New York City. NBC clearly believes in the show, placing it a key time period on the night of the week that draws the second-largest number of viewers in primetime.

The show, starring Maria Bello, has it work cut out for it, going against CBS hit drama The Mentalist, which averaged 15.3 million viewers in the time period last season. But buyers feel it might have a chance to siphon off viewers from the ABC veteran hospital drama Private Practice which averaged only 7.6 million viewers last season.

Prime Suspect has a different premise from the other two, and while The Mentalist draws a broad audience of men and women, Private Practice is watched by a majority of women, and Bello might be able to draw some of them away.

Horizon’s Campanelli believes Prime Suspect can be a hit for NBC, but he doesn’t think it will draw more viewers than The Mentalist. And MediaVest’s Lee worries that Prime Suspect may not get much help from NBC’s 9:30 freshman sitcom Whitney, which will skew female but may not get enough viewership to carry into 10 p.m. Meanwhile, Initiative’s Sotiridy says Prime Suspect looks better than anything NBC has tried in the time period in recent years.


Friday night at 10 will be another solid hour for CBS, with its hit second-year cop drama Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck, airing there. Last season the show averaged 6.5 million viewers in this time period, but then CBS moved it to Wednesday for a while, and combining the viewer averages for the two nights, the show averaged north of 12 million viewers.

It should clearly win the 10 p.m. hour vs. ABC’s 20/20 and NBC’s Dateline, although the newsmagazines averaged 5.7 and 6.3 million viewers, respectively. But MediaVest’s Lee believes that the two news magazines have such a compatible audience that they should both help their affiliates’ local newscasts. 

“Absolutely, news leading into news is a good audience flow,” he said. “The demos are similar and this will help the local newscasts retain their respective networks’ audiences.” Horizon’s Campanelli agrees: “News running into news is always nice.”


Saturday night is primarily a night of programming repeats in primetime. However, in the fall ABC televises college football which comes on at 8 and runs through the 10 p.m. hour until 11-11:30. Viewership varies based on the matchups, but last season the games drew about 6 million per telecast, just about the same average viewership as CBS’s 10 p.m. 48 Hour Mystery.

NBC last season ran repeats of Law & Order: SVU at 10 and averaged about 5 million viewers per telecast. These are not huge numbers on network TV’s lowest-rated night, and not much will change from the status quo from last year. A positive for ABC, possibly, is that football brings harder-to-reach men into primetime, and this could attract new viewers to ABC affiliates’ local news telecasts, which much like NBC’s more widely watched Sunday Night Football, ends at a time when ABC’s local news is the only game in town.


CBS returns CSI: Miami at 10; it averaged 11.7 million viewers last season and gets a super lead-in at 9 with The Good Wife, which averaged 13.6 million viewers on Tuesday last season. ABC canceled long-running drama Brothers and Sisters at 10 and is replacing it with retro drama Pan Am, which will lead out of Desperate Housewives.

Clearly both ABC and CBS are leaning a little more female to counter NBC’s Sunday Night Football, which, with more than 20 million viewers per telecast last season, gets its share of women too. MediaVest’s Lee said: “You would think Pan Am would be able to carve out a female audience versus football, but it’s going to be hard.” 

Media buyers are not sold on retro shows like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, despite all the hype and critical acclaim of similar genres on cable, like AMC’s Mad Men. Buyers point out that a show like Mad Men, while a hit with a couple million viewers on cable, would be canceled on broadcast for lack of audience.


On Monday, Fox is moving its aging medical drama hit House from 8 to 9 to make room for new family sci-fi drama Terra Nova from executive producer Steven Spielberg. House averaged 10.2 million viewers last season at 8 and this will be its eighth and final season. Fox is hoping that Terra Nova will draw enough viewers in that will stay on board for House but media buyers are skeptical. They point out that sci-fi shows traditionally have not done well on broadcast networks, with a few exceptions.

House will also be up against CBS’s Two and a Half Men with new star Ashton Kutcher and if he succeeds in replacing Charlie Sheen, Men could match its 12.7 million viewer average from last season, although House is a different genre. House will also have to face the second hour of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, which averaged 21 million viewers last season. So how much help it brings the Fox affiliates in the way of a local news audience lead-in is anyone’s guess. 

Media buyers point out that Fox, like all the broadcast networks, must first worry about its own ratings and establishing its own shows before it thinks about lead-ins to its affiliates’ local news.

On Tuesday nights, for example, Fox leads off the night with Glee at 8 and then is trying to establish a new sitcom, New Girl, so it is running that at 9, leading into sophomore sitcom Raising Hope, which last year average a so-so 6.4 million viewers. Clearly Glee, which averaged 10.1 million viewers at 8 last season, would be a better lead-in to local news, albeit a younger audience, but Fox wants to use Glee to establish its two comedies.

Tuesday is another tough night throughout, and at 9, Fox’s two comedies have to face the DWS Results Show (18.6 million viewers) and CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles (16.4 million).

But on Wednesday and Thursday nights into November, Fox will do a solid for its affiliates by running two hour episodes of X-Factor, leading into local news at 10.

On Wednesday, Fox will premiere variety competition X-Factor, which buyers all agree will be the highest rated new show on television this coming season and will not premiere the 9:30 p.m. debut of new comedy I Hate My Teenage Daughter until Nov. 23 when it cuts X Factor back to 90 minutes. On Thursday at 9, Fox will wait until Nov. 3 to bring back veteran drama Bones and also run two hours of X-Factor.

If X-Factor draws a similar audience to American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, the show would average around 20 million viewers per night, a nice lead-in to local news.

X-Factor is going to do huge numbers,” Initiative’s Sotiridy says. And Carat’s Gold said Fox made the right move by delaying the start of I Hate My Teenage Daughter to give X-Factor that extra half hour on Thursdays for two months. “If they didn’t, I bet the affiliates would have been very angry,” Gold said.

Fox will keep its veteran sci-fi drama Fringe on Friday at 9, airing against time period leader CBS’s CSI: NY and ABC’s game show Shark Tank. CSI: NY averaged 10.7 million viewers last season, while Fringe averaged 5.8 million.

NBC will air new drama sci-fi drama Grimm in the time period and that is the same genre as Fringe. And on Saturday, Fox has not decided what it will do at 9 to replace the departed America’s Most Wanted on a regular basis. The network will run a few AMW specials in the time period but not weekly.

On Sunday night, Fox has male-skewing Family Guy and American Dad airing from 9 to 10 leading into local news. Both of those shows do better once NBC’s SNF completes it run but again, the median age of their audience is younger than the traditional local news audience.

Comments (8)

Leave a Reply

Barb Palser says:

August 31, 2011 at 8:56 am

“Big Three”. We are still saying that? Are you kidding me?

Lance Vitanza says:

August 31, 2011 at 10:52 am

By “Big 3″ assume you mean the 3 that trail behind FOX? Wouldn’t a better reference be: The Big ONE (FOX) and the other 3” ? Hope you realize that there has not been a “Big 3” for more than a decade…if anything it’s the Big 4…but that gives a lot of credit to NBC, which seems to be falling into the description one might use for CW, MyNetwork, etc. Believe that Wal-Mart TV (point of sale at all Wal-Marts) has more viewers than NBC. Hey, maybe Wal-Mart should be brought into the reference “Big 4”. Just a thought.

    Debra winans says:

    August 31, 2011 at 10:57 am

    This article was about the 10PM prime hour, which FOX does not have. If they did have that 3rd hour, then it would be the big 4. FOX’s prime rotation does really well as whole, but if they had to compete with everyone else at 10P, then their number would be a lot lower.

Mark Kunkel says:

August 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm

What about CW affiliates who have 10pm news??

    len Kubas says:

    September 1, 2011 at 12:43 am

    they’re not providing network programming at 10 p.m. either. Hence, they’re not in the top three at 10p.m.

    Mark Kunkel says:

    September 1, 2011 at 8:56 am

    I know that, but they do the same thing as Fox and, thus, warrant a mention.

Hope Yen and Charles Babington says:

September 2, 2011 at 9:49 am

So NBC’s thinking that they’ll get SOME audience on KUTV’s SUB-channel for Playboy Club? Yeah, right. Large market ATV subchannels rarely appear on CATV systems, and I’m not aware of any carried on Dish or Direct in Large/Major markets. Perhaps they should change the call letters on that sub to KFOA. Kan’t Find Our Audience!!

    Debra winans says:

    September 6, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Yeah, I bet the NBC execs are up late at night worried about the Playboy Club only being on a ATV subchannel as opposed to NBC in the #33 market. (this was sarcasm).

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