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‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ‘CSI’ battle for Thursdays

Seattle’s doctors will take on the investigators from Vegas
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Remember the edge-of-your-seat “Grey’s Anatomy” episode that aired after the Super Bowl? A bomb has been implanted into a patient and if the device blew up during surgery, several of Seattle Grace’s best surgeons are goners.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, that plot turned out OK — except, of course, for the cute bomb-squad guy blown to bits. But come this fall, the doctors from “Grey’s” could be in for even more danger. Not from a patient this time but something much more ominous.

In an extremely risky scheduling move, ABC has moved “Grey’s” from its comfy post-“Desperate Housewives” 10 p.m. ET Sunday spot to Thursdays at 9. Here, it’ll come face-to-face with CBS’ ratings monster the most watched scripted show on television.

With an average audience of 25.2 million viewers for each episode last season, “CSI” rules non-reality TV. It might not get the buzz of “Grey’s,” “Housewives,” “Lost” or “24,” but people tune in by the millions. And there’s no reason to think that’s going to change anytime soon.

The only show to draw more viewers is “American Idol,” which has become a phenomenon beyond compare. The ratings this year for “Idol” were the highest of its five seasons. A staggering 36.3 million people tuned in to the finale and 42 million in the final half-hour when was crowned champ. No network would dare throw up one of its top shows up against “Idol.”

It's all about the movie adsBut ABC sees “CSI” as vulnerable. Here’s ABC’s thinking: While “Grey’s” is a standout Sunday night performer (averaging around 20 million viewers), by moving it to Thursdays — even if its audience dwindles by a few million — ABC can make even more money.

Thursday night is the pot of gold for the networks. It’s on this night where all the big advertisers, especially movie studios, want to get their message out. Studios know viewers are planning their weekends on Thursday (if not sooner) and with a slew of movie commercials, they need to persuade potential moviegoers to see their films.

Movie studios will all but throw money at networks for air time during those plum Thursday night slots. Let's look at the math: “Grey’s” was earning $325,000 for a 30-second ad on Sunday nights, ABC will make more cash with the show on Thursdays, when it can charge, say, $600,000-$750,000 for that same 30 seconds. Even if fewer folks are watching, the numbers add up.

That’s from an accountant’s perspective. And the bean counters must’ve done a great sales job to convince the programming guys to go along because while, yes, in the short run the ad dollars could be higher, there’s great risk involved.

There’s little doubt that there are millions of crossover TV watchers who, up until now, have tuned into both shows. Now they can only watch one at its scheduled time. (Sure, many will TiVo or otherwise record both shows, but those audiences are less appealing to advertisers.) Which show will viewers choose on Thursdays — “Grey’s” or “CSI”?

Who are the “CSI” and “Grey’s” viewers? Research tells us they’re somewhat similar: “Grey’s” is mostly female and in an age demo that advertisers crave: 18-49. “CSI”  has more male viewers and a slightly older audience, but there’s lots of overlap.

So what happens if the “Grey’s” numbers fall in such a way that the show begins to lose its hard-earned buzz? Imagine a scenario: Ratings drop precipitously, and ABC is forced to yank the show from Thursday. By then, viewers who haven’t watched for a season have lost interest and don’t return ... and then advertisers aren’t willing to pay as much as they did when it was on Sunday nights the first time around.

Part of what made “Grey’s” such a perfect Sunday fit was that it followed “Desperate Housewives,” a juicy lead-in that helped turn the medical show into a giant. Plus, airing on the weekend seemed to enhance the personal nature of the show, like hanging out with friends Sunday night before lurching back into the work week.

Many assumed that ABC would move “Grey’s” from Sunday to Mondays, where it would replace “Monday Night Football,” which the network lost to sister station ESPN. By relocating hottest show, ABC would be, in effect, claiming Monday as its night and setting forth a challenge to the other networks. That would’ve been the safe and sound move, but networks — sometimes due to bravado, other times stupidity — don’t always go the conventional route. By moving "Grey's" to Thursdays and setting it up against "CSI," ABC is directly challenging CBS to a rumble.

In ABC’s defense, while “CSI” still draws huge ratings, they have fallen 5% from last year's numbers when it comes to overall viewers, and dropped a healthy 10% in that 18-49 demo. So, maybe, if there’s a time to go up against the 500 lb. gorilla, that time is now. ABC's Thursday schedule before now has been a colossal failure, so “Grey’s,” however well it performs, will be a huge improvement.

NBC announced its fall schedule in mid-May, only to say a couple of weeks later, “Oops, we’ve made a mistake. Can we have a do-over?” The network originally had scheduled Aaron Sorkin's new show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” at 9 p.m. Thursday too. But once ABC moved “Grey’s” into that same mix, the NBC suits quickly swallowed a dose of reality and moved "Studio 60" to Monday.

So what does it all mean? Who are the winners? Probably TiVo, which loves a good timeslot fight. Maybe ABC, if “Grey’s” can sustain its popularity and if its new Sunday show, “Brothers & Sisters” with Calista Flockhart, performs well in place of “Grey’s.”

If not, the folks from “CSI” will have another case to solve: Why did a network suddenly blow up one of its best assets?

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles.