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'American Idol' versus 'The Big Bang Theory'

Actor Jim Parsons, right, of

Actor Jim Parsons, right, of "The Big Bang Theory" was nominated for lead actor in a comedy series. Photo Credit: AP

Could "The Big Bang Theory" sink "American Idol?" 

It's a ridiculous question on the surface -- a half-hour sitcom versus a giant that consumes four hours of prime time turf -- but the surface may not be what counts here. "TBBT" has revealed "Idol" weakness -- the underside of the armor, as it were. When CBS moved it to Thursdays in 2010, there were the scoffers: "oh Big Bang will be slaughtered, etc." But look at where it is now: It defeated "American Idol" for the second week in a row last night. 

What's got to be troubling for Fox is the simple fact that part of "Idol's" appeal has been its omnipotence -- viewers simply felt they couldn't miss an episode because everyone else was watching. It's been a self-fulfilling prophecy for a decade. 

But the crowd around the water cooler has thinned. There are fewer and fewer conversations along the lines of "oh my god did you see that last night!!" going on. 

So, where have we heard this story before? You actually have to go back 22 years, when "The Simpsons" went up against "The Cosby Show."  

The latter was one of the most successful shows in network history. It was also off the air a couple years later -- '92 was the last full season. Fox cleverly aired repeats of "Simpsons" opposites repeats of "Cos" over the summer, to get viewers ready for the transitions. 

 And transition they did . . .

 A story 'o mine on this from all those years ago. . .

 

By Verne Gay. STAFF WRITER SECTION: PART II; Pg. 5 Other Edition: City Pg. 9 LENGTH: 766 words

THE TV BATTLE of the year is about to begin.

Tonight, at 8 p.m., the first original episode of "The Simpsons" in nearly a year will face off against NBC's "Cosby Show." This is more than just one TV show tackling another; it is a battle of networks - of network upstart Fox, which hopes to establish a beachhead on the second-most viewed night of the week, versus powerful NBC, with its hugely profitable Thursday night line-up at stake.

It is a battle of corporate profit, and one of corporate pride. But even before the credits role, there is an overwhelming sense in the TV industry that this battle may already over. According to some TV observers, Fox has made a blunder that could seriously hurt it in the months to come.

Part of the reason for this impression is the show's performance so far. "The Simpsons" moved to its new Thursday-night berth on Aug. 23. In the head-to-head confrontation over subsequent weeks, "The Simpsons" has scored only an 8.8. rating and a 15 share compared to "Cosby's" 16.2 rating and 28 share. Since the new season began, "Cosby" is the third-highest show on television; "The Simpsons" ranks 73rd.

Each of "The Simpsons" episodes has been repeated as many as three times since last fall, which explains some of the weakness. But some people think the numbers indicate a deeper ailment: the show's fad appeal, which was red-hot last spring and fall, has faded. "The buzz is off the show," said Jon Mandel, a senior vice president at Grey Advertising.

By moving the show, say industry observers, Fox confused viewers who had become accustomed to seeing it on Sundays. Moreover, the frequent repeats have dampened audience interest, a problem that plagued ABC's onetime hit, "Moonlighting." Fox argues that viewers will come back to the show when new episodes appear; the network has told advertisers that it will eventually get a 27 share of the viewing audience on Thursday.

To understand Fox's reasons for shifting the show, it is necessary to understand Fox chairman Barry Diller's Thursday strategy. "There was a feeling that ABC and CBS had rolled over and played dead on Thursday during the last two years," said a Fox executive. "The feeling was that if 'Cosby' died, then we stood to inherit its audience and that would give us strength for years to come." What Fox did not apparently anticipate, however, were production delays.

A typical episode of "The Simpsons" takes several months to produce, while a typical "Cosby" episode takes less than a month to wrap. Only 13 new "Simpsons" episodes have been produced, which means that early next year, the show will once again go into repeats - against original "Cosby" episodes.

Fox had yet another motive for moving in on NBC's turf on Thursday. It is the most important night of the week for movie advertisers, who have traditionally used NBC's hit shows to hype Friday releases.

These advertisers pay premiums of as much as 50 percent for commercial inventory on Thursday nights. "Fox saw a dollar windfall," says Bill Croasdale, an executive vice president of Backer Spielvogel Bates Advertising. Indeed, Fox got its windfall. Advertisers spent more than $ 300,000 per commercial on "The Simpsons."

"Even if the show goes down in flames, Fox will have to keep it on Thursdays" because of the financial stakes involved, says Croasdale. But that too could spell big problems. Industry experts say the show will ultimately get about a 21 share - maximum - in its current berth, or six share points below what Fox promised advertisers.

Under the "guarantee" method of network TV buying, Fox would have to give back commercials to advertisers to make up for the shortfall. Some advertisers have criticized the network for taking "The Simpsons" to Thursdays, after the show had established a big following on Sundays.

"A move like this was designed as an opportunity for motion picture companies to show their latest releases," says Betsy Frank, a senior vice president at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. "It will only fragment viewing. That can't be considered good for viewers."

The Battle So Far Aug. 23: Cosby 15/28 Simpsons 8.4/16 Aug. 30: Cosby 13.1/25 Simpsons 8.0/15 Sept. 6: Cosby 13.7/24 Simpsons 8.5/15 Sept. 13: Cosby 13.9/24 Simpsons 9.8/17 Sept. 20: Cosby (premiere) 19.8/33 Simpsons 9.3/14 Sept. 27: Cosby 18.4/31 Simpsons 8.2/14 Oct. 4: Cosby 19.5/ 33 Simpsons 9.6/16  

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