The Report: 'Idol's Thursday Throwdown

Issue 53 - Right Wing TV: American Idol
Michael Becker/Fox

Who wins and loses when the No. 1 show switches nights.

Talk about a big bang. Fox moving American Idol to advertiser-friendly Thursdays may have been inevitable, but that’s little comfort to rivals who will soon face TV’s biggest ratings weapon on an already ultra-competitive night. NBC’s Community, ABC’s Wipeout, the CW’s The Vampire Diaries and — most interestingly — the new kid on the scheduling block, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, will now go head-to-head with TV’s No. 1 show. The Idol shift is already causing reverberations throughout the broadcast schedule.

“Here’s a chance for us to own Thursday nights,” says Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative. “You have to do a big move to take on Thursdays, and this is a big move.”

Thursdays are generally the most coveted night of the week for ad buyers because it is seen as the best platform for influencing consumers’ weekend plans (such as whether to see a movie or shop for a car). The night has turned into a feeding frenzy after rivals began sniffing ratings weakness in NBC’s comedy-block lineup and veteran top-rated rivals CSI and Grey’s Anatomy began to decline.

Last year, Fox moved in an all-scripted lineup during the evening for the first time, airing Bones and Fringe, with the latter performing modestly. This season, CBS shifted top-rated comedy Big Bang and a less-inspired freshman partner $#*! My Dad Says into the 8 p.m. hour to establish a comedy beachhead to rival NBC.

All has been going well for CBS, with Big Bang averaging 15 million viewers and winning the night. But now here comes Idol to crash the party.

The singing competition moving into the neighborhood means Fox will likely take the Thursday trophy from CBS starting in January, especially if Idol manages to boost Bones at 9 p.m. In fact, Bones could be a big beneficiary of the Idol move, potentially overthrowing grizzled fellow crime procedural CSI in the key adult demo. Big Bang, with a loyal fan base that just followed it from Mondays to Thursdays, likely will only be modestly impacted. But$#*! My Dad Says, which is already dropping about 30% from its lead-in lately, could take a serious hit — especially if Big Bang fans jump over to Fox to catch the decisive second half of the Idol results show. Starting Jan. 20, NBC will have Community — whose time-slot fortunes have gone from bad to worse — and new comedy Perfect Couples, which might end up being a sacrificial lamb.

Still, one executive at a rival network says the press has it all wrong: Fox is making a defensive maneuver, not an aggressive one.

“It takes the pressure off the ratings,” the executive says. “If the Idol numbers are down, which I’m sure they assume, they can blame the switch. It also lets them get a little extra coin for Thursdays, which also helps if they’re down a little. When they were smoking red hot, it didn’t matter whether they were on Tuesday, they could charge advertisers whatever they wanted.”

The Fox camp scoffs a such a notion: Even down 8% last season, Idol is still the No. 1 program and generates about $450,000 for a 30-second spot, tops in primetime. Fox says the obvious motive for the switch is keeping the hit musical Glee on Tuesday (a night the network is now typically winning), while taking advantage of CBS’ Survivor moving off Thursdays.

Idol moving from Tuesday should help CBS’ NCIS, NBC’s Biggest Loser, and especially ABC’s Dancing With the Stars results show, which often faced a two-hour Idol performance show at 9 p.m. Its struggling dramas No Ordinary Family and the return of V will also dodge the Idol bullet.

Of course, all of this presumes that the retooled, Simon Cowell-free Idol can deliver its usual numbers. The impact of Cowell’s departure is perhaps the biggest X factor of them all.