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DESPERATE FOR RATINGS

This is what I'm thinking:

"Desperate Housewives" could cost the National Football League a broadcast partner or at least some leverage in contract talks.

I'm not talking about the Towel Foul, which is what I call the Monday Night Football promo with Nicolette Sheridan and Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens that rocked conservative America earlier this week.

It's the huge ratings for the series that may affect ABC's thinking as it negotiates its next deal for MNF with the NFL.

ABC is reportedly losing as much as $150 million a year on the current deal, which averages $550 million a year and runs out after the 2005 season. ABC doesn't want to pay a rights fee increase that has already been agreed upon by Fox and CBS in an extension that runs through 2011.

When ABC was in the ratings dumper, it desperately needed MNF and its three to four hours of solid prime-time ratings. Now that rookie shows "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" are often getting higher weekly ratings than MNF at considerably less cost, the network wouldn't appear to be as desperate to make a money-losing deal.

The most unusual aspect of the NFL's reaction to Monday's skit was the wording of its criticism. The official statement was sharper than it had to be, especially when you consider the two parties are in contract negotiations.

"While ABC may have gained attention for one of its other shows, the NFL and its fans lost," read the statement in part.

Monday wasn't the first time ABC has used celebrities in its MNF opening to attract viewers. It also has been running reality prank segments featuring players at halftime in an attempt to draw more than the average football fan, and those haven't always been in the best taste, either.If ABC was using the "Housewives" skit to get more football viewers, it was only hurting its Disney brother, ESPN. The 9 p.m. show plays opposite Sunday Night Football.

Fox repeats the pilot of the promising new medical series, "House," tonight in hopes of getting more viewers to sample it. As expected, the smart series about a brilliant doctor who thinks "humanity is overrated" was out-rated here by CBS' "Amazing Race" by a considerable margin. But "House" doubled its Fox lead-in and had a 5.8 rating here, which is very good by WUTV standards. The two-hour premiere of "Amazing Race" averaged a 10.8 rating.

Did it really take a four-month 7 News investigation to discover that there is prostitution in Buffalo just like there is in every city, and that many of the working women are feeding a drug habit? The sweeps series, "Hooker Alley," by reporter John Borsa mercifully ends this evening. Hopefully, he and Channel 7 will use their time more wisely for the February sweeps.

In these conservative times, it seems odd to hear WGRZ-TV run news promos asking if viewers are tired of "old-fashioned" news. You'd think being old-fashioned would be "in" these days. One assumes Channel 2 is targeting news leader WIVB-TV, since 7 News is in the middle of its extreme makeover. One of Channel 2's new ideas is telling viewers what bloggers are e-mailing them about issues. In the old days, they used to do man-in-the street interviews, which often were just as "enlightening" as the bloggers' comments are.

The 9 p.m. Wednesday time slot will be the toughest and brightest hour on network television in January when ABC puts "Alias" there. It will face NBC's "The West Wing," CBS' "King of Queens," UPN's "Kevin Hill," WB's "Jack & Bobby" and perhaps "Nanny 911" on Fox. The hour is an advertisement for the DVR and Tivo.

e-mail:apergament@buffnews.com

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