The fat lady has sung and it ain’t pretty: Network TV is hemorrhaging viewers. Even the almighty Peacock — preening over its second straight ratings win — is down 11 percent from last season, with an average of 15.2 million viewers per prime-time offering. Second-place CBS is up a piddling 1 percent, with 13.8 million. Third-place ABC, with an average of 13.5 million, lost 13 percent. Only Fox made a substantial (by these standards) gain of 6 percent, with 11.6 million. (In the key 18-49 demographic, it was a similar story, with NBC dominating, though off 7 percent from last year; Fox up 3 percent; ABC down 12 percent; and CBS — now aggressively courting an older crowd — off 5 percent.)
The question stumping the industry is, Where’d everybody go? Well, cable — which has made huge viewer gains over the last 10 years, though no one network made giant strides this season. Broadcast’s Big Four often blame the messenger, faulting Nielsen Media Research’s outdated (they say) ratings service. And NBC points a finger at two additional culprits: ”We had a magnificent start, then got stalled by baseball and political specials,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, citing in particular the Ross Perot infomercials that all the nets had to air last fall. On the other hand, baseball can spark a rally for the home team: Fox’s modest gains have as much to do with the World Series (not to mention the Super Bowl) as with any of its entertainment programming. So it’s no surprise that NBC execs figure this year’s World Series will provide them with a ratings boost. As Littlefield knows all too well, what goes around…
But if Nielsen is, in fact, accurate, then the problem (and message) is clear — content. And ABC had the most serious problems: no freshman home runs, and aging vets Roseanne, Home Improvement, and Grace Under Fire, all of which dipped in the ratings. (Ellen got a tremendous boost when its star came out of the closet, but ratings subsequently dropped.) ABC tried mid-season revitalization with a familiar face, paying nearly $1 million per episode for Arsenio; it quickly tanked.
Shelling out big bucks for recycled stars didn’t work for anyone, really. ABC made another heavy investment in Michael J. Fox’s Spin City, without reaping the expected rewards. CBS spent $1 million per episode to bring Bill Cosby back, and while the show opened huge — and certainly improved the perception of the once tightfisted network — it finally settled into solid but unspectacular weekly numbers. The also pricey Ink — starring Ted Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen — was an out-and-out flop (which CBS has wisely — and bravely — chopped from its fall lineup). CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves says making the call to Danson to cancel the show was one of the hardest things he’s had to do. The network, he notes, has ”stopped the bleeding” and now needs to get younger.
NBC, which scored last year with an ABC steal (3rd Rock from the Sun), realized that when it came to ditching Jeff Foxworthy, the Alphabet net’s judgment was letter-perfect. But NBC is claiming a hit in The Naked Truth (another former ABC property) along with Fired Up and Suddenly Susan; next year, however, will provide the true test when the trio exit cushy Thursday slots and try to stand on their own (together on Mondays).