"Miami Vice" has hit the ratings skids.
A Top 10 show during its second season, the innovative NBC police series dropped to 29th last season, averaging 14.7 million households a week. It opened its fourth season this fall with an audience of 14.3 million homes and has been dropping steadily every week since--to 9.8 million for its Nov. 6 episode.
But "Miami Vice" isn't the only Friday-night network series to have suffered an audience decline. So has its top-rated competitor at 9 p.m., CBS' "Dallas." The long-running soap opera, ranked 11th in the prime-time ratings last season, has fluctuated this season between 16th and 26th place (except for one week at No. 6 when "Miami Vice" was preempted by baseball).
Does this ratings drop-off for the time slot's two most popular programs (ABC, like last year, is running a distant third) result from the A.C. Nielsen Co.'s controversial new "people meter" rating system? Or does it reflect a waning interest in the two programs, with the Friday-night audience suddenly turning to other alternatives?
Expert opinions vary.
Bill Rubens, vice president of research at NBC, said that the networks' ratings in general have been lower this season than last, which he and other network officials attribute to the new methodology being used by Nielsen to collect audience viewing data--including an entirely new group of households being sampled. But Friday night has shown the steepest drop, he said.
Part of the reason, network researchers believe, is the VCR.
"Friday nights and Saturday nights are the best nights for movie rentals," said Paul Sonkin, vice president of network audience research for ABC.
Whether "Miami Vice" and "Dallas" are simply running out of steam and losing formerly regular viewers forever is a question that can't be answered yet, Rubens said. "We haven't really been able to get from Nielsen the kind of statistics you need to evaluate what's going on," he said. "It could be technical problems; it could be something real going on."
As an example of a technical problem, he cited a period in the mid-'70s when the ratings seemed to indicate flagging network viewership, but later it turned out there was a computer glitch at Nielsen in which some TV sets that hadn't been turned on for as long as three months were being improperly included in the audience survey.
At CBS, meanwhile, research chief David Poltrack said the changeover to people meters explains the lower ratings for "Dallas" but not for "Miami Vice."
In a test of the people meters in 1,000 households last season, he said, "Dallas" scored the same viewing level that it is getting this season, while "Miami Vice" shows a decline against that earlier study.
"It ('Vice') and 'Dallas' are totally different situations," Poltrack said. " 'Dallas' is holding its own, but even comparing people meter to people meter, it has lost a lot of its following. It's a show that, I think, has become passe."
Poltrack said 'Miami Vice" is more likely to be hit by the Friday night movie-rental boom, since its young, male audience rents more films for their VCRs than the older, largely female audience of "Dallas" and other prime-time soaps.
And although Poltrack acknowledged that the soaps have been hard hit by the people meters--which have tended to favor that same technology-savvy, young male audience that rents a lot of movies--he said "Dallas" is "by far the best-performing soap" and added that its serialized story form has created a stable base of viewers who do not want to miss any episodes.
"Miami Vice" executive producer Michael Mann had no explanation for the audience decline in his show, describing the Nielsen ratings system as "a large Ouija board as far as where some of the numbers are coming from."
He said he believes that the networks are generally taking a beating due to competition from cable TV, and added that "Vice" ratings have been hurt the past two seasons by NBC's decision to place the show at 9 p.m. rather than its original 10 p.m. slot.