NBC's The West Wing is in decline. Only 16 million watched this week's show compared to 20 million the same time last year.
However, the Peacock might be able to parlay that drop-off into a better deal when the license fee for the Warner Bros. TV production is renegotiated in a few months time.
Just like in politics, it looks like some insider was putting the spin on this possible agenda, as both the Hollywood trade paper Daily Variety and the Los Angeles Times carried stories Friday speculating on the potential negotiating strength of both parties. Also, just like in politics, there is also considerable tension between the two sides, because Warners has previously squeezed the Peacock for huge deals for the relicensing of both ER and Friends.
Despite winning the Best Drama Series Emmy again last month (the third consecutive trophy for the Oval Office series), The West Wing has lost steam in the 18-49 demo advertisers drool over. The show's down 33 percent from last season with only 6.8 million viewers in that category.
In the past two weeks, according to Nielsen, The West Wing's ratings have been the lowest since it debuted in 1999. (Perhaps viewers don't find the story line in which President Barlet seeks reelection that suspenseful, figuring it's a forgone conclusion he wins because of that hefty pay raise Martin Sheen just received. Or maybe they don't care as much as the media think about whether Rob Lowe stays or goes.)
Before this fourth season began, Industry analysts had theorized that a renegotiated deal would see a big jump from the nearly $2 million the network pays the production studio for each episode.
But now, some Hollywood insiders are figuring differently. "Warner Bros. is not going to get as much as they originally thought," one high-level agent tells Variety. "Whoever bids really has to decide how much future they think the show has."
Still, The West Wing is one of the tube's most prestigious shows, and NBC might be willing to pay big to keep it. The network also touts the show's appeal to another advertiser-favored demographic: high-end viewers with household incomes over $75,000 a year. And with Friends likely ending after this season, NBC needs proven winners in the lineup to maintain its ratings.
"The West Wing's qualitative and quantitative merit is still quite high, particularly among the upscale audience and light TV viewers," John Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency, tells the Times.
Those are also reasons why CBS, greedy to conquer NBC, and ABC, just needy for anything which might restore prestige and ratings, are reportedly expressing interest in acquiring The West Wing if NBC doesn't meet Warners' asking price.
The show's Wednesday, 9 p.m. time slot is now considered about the most fiercely competitive in prime-time. Even ABC has been making some noise there with its reality dating show The Bachelor (also produced by Warner Bros. TV), which actually beat The West Wing in the 18-49 demo with 8.3 million adults among its 12.8 million viewers.
Another factor that might come into play at the bargaining table (but to whose benefit is not yet certain) is that five out the six series in the 9 p.m Wednesday period are produced by Warner Bros. TV. In addition to The West Wing and The Bachelor Warners cranks out the youth-oriented cop show Fastlane (which will return to Fox once baseball ends), the WB's glamorous supergirls series Birds of Prey (which attracted 7.6 million viewers, many of them young adults, when it debuted this week) and UPN's The Twilight Zone (which has seen improved ratings since its lackluster debut). CBS' The Amazing Race is the only broadcast show in that hour not linked to the AOL Time Warner-owned studio.
"When you get to a volume status like we've achieved, it's inevitable that you're going to compete against yourself," Warner Bros. TV Group exec VP Bruce Rosenblum tells Variety, expressing the hope "that the demographic appeal of all the shows is different enough" for most of them to succeed.
Neither Warners nor NBC would comment on The West Wing status, but expect this cliffhanger to come to a head later this season.