By Ronald Grover As the TV world descends upon New York City for the annual advertising scrum known as the up-front market, CBS (VIA) will look for big bucks for its CSI franchise while ABC (DIS) seeks price hikes for freshman hits Desperate Housewives and Lost. NBC (GE) will probably try to spin its Friends spin-off, Joey, a weak performer so far. But the show that may cause the biggest ripple isn't heavily hyped or star studded: House, the medical drama about a sarcastic, self-indulgent, pill-popping doctor who hates his patients as much as he despises himself.
Starring British actor Hugh Laurie, House is the biggest surprise hit not only of this season but also of the last several. The show, which airs on Fox (NWS) on Tuesdays at 9 p.m., represents a rarity for network TV. It's smart, with a one-of-a-kind character who isn't all that likeable or sympathetic. House's clout with over-40 viewers has even surprised the folks at Fox. After all, Rupert Murdoch's flagship TV property earned its reputation mostly from its young-leaning shows like The Simpsons and American Idol, as well as edgier fare like Cops.
IDOL-WORTHY. In fact, House just might help Fox end the season as the No. 1 network among viewers aged 18 to 49 -- the very group advertisers value highest, according Brad Adgate, senior vice-president and corporate research director at ad-buying agency Horizon Media. Indeed, House, which airs behind the Fox phenom American Idol, already qualifies as a bona fide hit. After a slow start, it has ranked in the top 10 or 12 for the past few weeks, ranking and 27th for the season.
Every Tuesday, an estimated 12 million folks tune in to watch the curmudgeonly, cane-leaning Dr. Gregory House pop Vicodin and diagnose nearly impossible cases, evincing utter disdain for just about everyone in his wobbly path. "I'm not too busy," House sneers to a co-worker in one episode. "I'm just not sure I want him to live."
Of course, the patient lives. But who's really feeling better these days is the brass at Fox. The network has had several less-than-spectacular seasons trying to find a show worthy of following American Idol. The on-air talent contest is Fox's top-rated show for the season and the No. 2 show overall after CBS's CSI.
ATYPICAL OFFERING. On May 10, 70% of the homes that tuned in to American Idol stuck around to see the not-so-good doctor, according to Nielsen. Moreover, House ranked ninth among 18- to-49-year-olds, drawing about 9 million in that demographic. Better yet, House, with an audience whose median age is 44, gives Fox the chance to sell a different set of ads than it does on many of its other shows, which tend to play better with the under-40 crowd.
Ironically, Fox almost rejected House, because network brass worried that the doctor played too old and too craggy for a typical Fox viewer. "I kept hearing that this wasn't the typical Fox show," recalls House producer David Shore, who wrote the pilot episode and said Fox initially wanted someone in his 30s. (Fox did succeed in talking Shore out of putting Dr. House in a wheelchair, he says.)
Eventually, Fox relented. On a Monday morning, it agreed to buy the show after seeing the script on a Friday, and allowed Shore to cast the 45-year-old Laurie in the title role. "They wanted a medical show," recalls Shore. "And this wasn't your typical medical show, with pretty people and nice-guy doctors. I think Fox liked that."
BUILDING VIEWER BASE. They sure like it now. According to Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting, Rupert's crew will be charging about $300,000 for 30 seconds on the upcoming season's shows. That's because the series has been averaging around 16% of households turning it on Tuesday nights, up from the 8% to 9% share of the audience that Fox had guaranteed last year. Madison Avenue folks say that when the season started, the going rate for the show was about $150,000 for 30 seconds. "A lot of advertisers got a great deal last year," says Nesvig. "This year they'll be paying more, because they knew they'll be getting more."
House is produced by NBC Universal, whose NBC unit could surely use a hit show. But, according to Shore, House was promised to Fox last year, shortly before NBC closed its deal to buy Universal Studios from Vivendi Universal (V). Ad buyers understand full well that Fox will look for huge increases this year -- and that House will deliver for them. "It's like Family Ties," says Andy Donchin, vice-president of ad buying agency Carat North America. "That was a great show that no one knew before NBC put it on behind Cosby."
Now, with both American Idol and House raking up the ratings numbers, Fox will likely win the May sweeps among both overall households and 18-to-49-year-olds, figures Adgate, and the network will be able to leverage that momentum when striking deals with advertisers. "Fox has been searching for dramas that it can air and repeat but has only been able to come up with 24 since the days of X-Files and Ally McBeal," says Adgate. "They were getting by with reality shows, and needed to find a drama just like House to build a base of viewers to build on into the future."
Fox hasn't said where it intends to put House in the schedule for next season, which it will announce May 19. It might deem House strong enough to anchor a night, and move it from its cozy post-Idol perch. "It's a quality show, and folks will find good shows," says Donchin. It's also the ratings medicine Fox needed. Who knew that a pill-popping antihero was just what the doctor ordered? Grover is Los Angeles Bureau chief for BusinessWeek