November 5, 2008

Networks Lose Ground

By Gary Levin

Voters cast their presidential ballots Tuesday, but TV viewers have already weighed in on the fall TV season: The big networks continue to lose viewers, only two new shows are successes, and there's not much excitement among fans.

It's all a continuation of a steady trend. Prime-time viewership is up 2% this fall, but fans are going elsewhere for their TV fix. In short, the networks are buffeted by a perfect storm of obstacles.

*Last winter's writers' strikeseverely crimped development of new shows: Only 14 scripted series joined the schedule, less than half the normal load, reducing the new season's status as a fall event.

*ABC and NBC lost big bets that viewers would return to five holdover series benched last winter during the strike (ABC's Pushing Daisies, Private Practice and Dirty Sexy Money, and NBC's Chuck and Life).

*An electrifying presidential campaign has nearly tripled viewership for the three major cable news networks in October, draining potential audience, while other cable channels once leery of fall now compete aggressively. Univision and MyNetwork TV also have gained viewers.

*And continued growth in streaming online and time-shifting with DVRs -- now in 28% of homes -- has stripped the immediacy from scripted TV viewing, and risks leaving once-loyal fans less so. At least one in four viewers of Fringe, Heroes, 90210 and The Office record and watch those shows later.

Despite the "perception that everything's the same, people are just watching (TV) differently, that's not the case," says Sam Armando, an analyst at ad firm Starcom Media. "There's still a decline."

Add the absence of a huge water-cooler hit -- not seen since Grey's Anatomy surfaced in 2005 -- and the upshot is more bad news.

The four biggest networks combined averaged 36.9 million prime-time viewers this fall, down 9%, compounding last year's losses.

"The distraction of the elections and the loss of momentum due to the strike have made it more difficult," says John Rash of Minneapolis ad firm Campbell-Mithun. "But every network faces the same challenges, and some have performed better than others."

Among the bright spots, CBS has the smallest decline from last fall, the most new shows and this season's biggest new hit: The Mentalist, a twist on its familiar crime-drama formula, which is averaging nearly 16 million viewers behind NCIS. And remarkably, seven of the network's returning series have gained viewers over last fall, reversing a typical trend for long-running series.

Looking at rivals, says CBS program planning chief Kelly Kahl, "it doesn't really feel like fall. The season feels like a do-over. We were rewarded for having new product on the air and being able to tout something that's exciting."

With Tina Fey's star on the rise, thanks to her Sarah Palin impression on Saturday Night Live, NBC's 30 Rock returned to series highs last week. But all of the fourth-place network's new series have had mediocre turnouts.

ABC, heavily dependent on serialized dramas that target younger women, has seen losses, though it remains a close second among young-adult viewers. CW has narrowed its target to young women, and in that measure has something of a new hit with its 90210 remake.

And Fox, always a laggard in fall, has seen declines in almost every returning show (and arecord-low World Series), though Fringe is helping the network bide its time. "They're waiting for 24 and (American) Idol in January," says Brad Adgate of ad buyer Horizon Media. "That changes the whole race."

And programmers hope the end of election season will draw more viewers back to prime time, invigorating a ratings race that pales by comparison. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>