AFTER THE FOX: The writers’ strike seems to have claimed another belated victim this week, with the announcement by Nielsen Media Research this week that CBS might be forced to relinquish its “most watched network” status to upstart Fox, the youngest and – by a reputation that it does little to rebuke – crassest of the big four.

In a Los Angeles Times piece, Scott Collins calls up CBS for a reaction, and gets a defiant one. “We're not conceding,” said David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president of research and planning, who hinted that no one at Fox should celebrate too hard should they end up with the bigger numbers at the end of this season. “I don't think there's anyone who's going to read anything into this season," Poltrack said. "Our dominant franchise is scripted programming, and we have been without it for most of the season.”

Of course, we’ve rehearsed this ritual a few times before, as the end of every season every year since I started writing this column has seen Fox edge up close to CBS, and even beat them out in key demographics such as 18-34-year-olds. Going against conventional marketing wisdom, CBS has continued to court older viewers – “the over-50 set that Madison Avenue pretends is invisible” as Collins put it, quite truthfully, while casting a bemused eye over Andy Rooney, still at his cluttered desk at CBS News, complaining that he can’t get the top off this internet thing.


(Just how long they’ll be able to ignore the oldsters remains to be seen, however, as Baby Boomers, flush with retirement money and the proceeds of liquidated real estate, and used to being catered to at every stage of their lives, start making their needs felt in the media marketplace. Ever wondered what My Generation would sound like as the score for an adult incontinence ad? Wonder no more ...)

CBS CEO Les Moonves definitely took a “damn the torpedoes” approach to the strike, even going so far as to say that, while the network might have been losing advertising money with a lack of new programming, at least it didn’t have to spend any to make the damn things. Other networks had backup plans to fill the vacuum, while Fox had Idol waiting in the wings, leaving Moonves to stand at the bridge of his ship, betting on a short strike and dismissing the iceberg sightings.

Fox, never overly concerned with its dignity, had shows like the truly disturbing Moment Of Truth ready to go, and unlike CBS – the home of blue chip dramas like CSI and the fading reality franchise Survivor – was able to postpone the next season of 24 for a whole year without anyone really noticing. They outplayed and outgunned CBS, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – if you’ve always prided yourself in doing anything to win, no one will complain when you do.

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