Red Reddington and Olivia Pope are two of TV’s most fearsome, cunning figures, and woe to the person who ends up opposite either of them on the battlefield.
But starting tonight, they’ll be facing off against each other, as NBC shifts The Blacklist to Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET, opposite ABC’s Scandal, setting up this season’s biggest, bloodiest time slot battle: NBC’s top-rated scripted show in adults 18-49 (Blacklist averages a 3.32 rating this season), pitted against ABC’s number two scripted show in 18-49 (Scandal’s 3.21 average is behind only Modern Family‘s).
Yes, the brutal time slot competition seems somewhat illogical, especially given that NBC is the number one network in 18-49 this season, in part because of Blacklist’s robust Monday night ratings. But NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt explained last month that Blacklist offers NBC its best chance to claw back into contention on Thursday nights, which the network had dominated for years. “It’s an important night for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it is a great, desirable night for advertising,” he said.
Indeed, it’s essential for the broadcast networks to be competitive on Thursday, which is primetime’s most lucrative night. While Thursday actually has the week’s third-lowest viewership, advertisers of movies and other weekend-themed products pay handsomely to run their commercials on Thursdays, and NBC is tired of missing out on its share of the dough.
Thursdays “used to be the big night of television for NBC,” said Greenblatt, as the network’s Must-See TV lineup ruled the Nielsens for decades. But as NBC’s stalwarts went off the air — Friends in 2004, Will and Grace in 2006, ER in 2009 — the network lost its luster on the night. Now Thursdays are more like a graveyard for NBC, riddled with dead shows walking like The Michael J. Fox Show, Bad Judge and A to Z. “Putting comedies we love there and having them fail started to feel like the definition of insanity,” entertainment president Jennifer Salke said last month.
This isn’t the first time a network has shifted a big show into Thursday night to successfully establish a foothold there. In 1990, Fox moved The Simpsons from Sunday to Thursday, opposite the then top-rated The Cosby Show, and the animated series more than held its own for years, before returning to Sundays in 1994. As CSI began taking off in its first season, CBS made a midseason shift in 2001, relocating it from Fridays to Thursdays, where it dominated for the next decade. And when Grey’s Anatomy returned for its third season in 2006, ABC moved it from Sundays to Thursdays, where it helped lay the foundation for what ultimately became its powerful TGIT lineup.
“It’s a risky, but necessary, move for us to make,” said Greenblatt. “The only way to really reinvigorate that night is to jumpstart it with something like The Blacklist. If you don’t start that move at some point, you’ll never get there.”
And both shows arrive at tonight’s battle loaded for bear. NBC gave The Blacklist its coveted post-Super Bowl berth, where Sunday’s episode drew a series-high 25.72 million viewers (and an 8.4 rating), and ended with a cliffhanger that will be resolved in tonight’s episode. The show also is running a $25,000 sweepstakes for viewers who watch tonight; in essence, NBC is paying viewers (well, one viewer, at least) to tune in to its Thursday debute.
Meanwhile, Scandal returned from its midseason hiatus last Thursday with one of the show’s best episodes ever, featuring a tour de force, give-her-the-damn-Emmy turn from star Kerry Washington which also ended in a cliffhanger that will pick up tonight. That episode also generated 527,335 tweets, one indication that it should likely have the edge in live viewing among audiences that watch both shows.
That’s one of the reasons that Greenblatt doesn’t expect Blacklist to win the ratings battle, at least at first. “I expect it’s not going to be everything we hope it’s going to be right off the bat, but I also think you have to plant the seed and over time, grow it and water it and nurture it, and hopefully rebuild it,” Greenblatt told me.
That said, he’ll only be so patient, especially if Blacklist’s ratings quickly crater. “If it doesn’t work, and I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but if it’s a disaster, we won’t just live with it,” Greenblatt told me. “We’ll try to correct it, sooner than later.”
Let the battle begin…