There's good news and bad news for Paul Lee, the new head of ABC Entertainment Group.
The bad news is that ABC's facing fourth place in the important adults 18-49 ratings race through the end of December. The good news is that he can blame it all on his predecessor, Stephen McPherson who resigned in July.
Last season as of 1/3/10, this is how the primetime adults 18-49 ratings averages stacked up among the broadcast networks.
NBC was suffering in the midst of the Lenopocalypse, and the media attention on them was withering (and unrelenting), but ABC was just a tenth of a rating point ahead of NBC, yet most of the TV media gave them a pass.
This season with NBC emptying its bank account (and likely crushing its income statement) to plump up its 10pm hour with scripted dramas from Monday-Friday (sucking up to their affiliates who returned the favor and gave their OK to the Comcast deal) it's quite possible NBC moves past ABC into third place.
How can that happen?
Last season The Jay Leno Show averaged about a 1.5 adults 18-49 rating for its 5 hours/week. Let's assume that the 10pm dramas that replace it average a 2.0 rating (a pretty low bar, but this is NBC, and returning Parenthood is almost a cinch to stay above a 2.0).
0.5 ratings point gain * 5 hours / 22 primetime hours a week = 0.11 average ratings points gained
And that would just put NBC ahead of ABC assuming things otherwise break about evenly for the two this fall like:
1. NBC and ABC's returning shows ratings degrade similarly. It's likely the returning shows for both networks will suffer normal ratings erosion, if one does noticeably better that could tip the scale.
2. NBC and ABC's new shows perform similarly. This is a complete toss up. I don't profess to guess how new shows will perform. Neither network has shown much success in the past few seasons, so even one or two more successes could make the difference.
3. Sunday Night Football must hold up. Last year Sunday Night Football ratings were up, and while you never know what will happen this season, the return of Brett Favre is a positive indicator.
Assuming those things fall out about even, NBC's spending on 5 hours of drama to replace Leno should move it to third by the end of December in the ratings.
Conventional wisdom would be that ABC then thrashes NBC in the spring to move back into third for the full season, but ABC will be without Lost, and NBC's performance last spring (which consisted of filling their schedule with all manner of dreck to plug the hole left by TJLS) is hard to project into this spring. Stay Tuned.