NEW YORK — There was good news and bad news for the major TV networks Tuesday. Most of the good was for NBC, which chalked up its fourth consecutive prime-time victory in the so-called "official" season that ended Sunday. It finished first in all 30 weeks and beat second-place ABC by a 24% margin, the largest since CBS' victory over NBC in 1957.
The bad news was for all three networks. In a strike-crippled season, their combined share of the prime-time audience was the lowest in history--averaging 68%, or about 3% below last season.
Network officials attributed the drop both to last year's 22-week writers' strike, which delayed production of new and returning series, and the continuing inroads of cable, now in 54.8% of the nation's TV households.
But they sought to project a "the-worst-is-over" outlook in discussing two separate sets of ratings for the just-completed season. CBS was the most optimistic, even though that once-dominant network was third in the ratings for the second straight season, by a narrow margin.
CBS research vice president David Poltrack forecast heavy promotion next fall to lure back viewers.
"We're going to have to bang the drums loudly, probably a little bit more loudly than we have in the past," he said.
In the final returns for this season, released Tuesday by the A.C. Nielsen Co., NBC calculated a traditional 30-week season. Least affected by the strike because it had the Summer Olympics and World Series telecasts, it said it averaged a 16 rating, ABC a 12.9 and CBS a 12.6.
CBS' and ABC's ratings were for what they considered a strike-shortened, 25-week season that didn't start until Oct. 24, when more than 50% of all network programming was first-run, as it would be in a normal season.
The outcome wasn't much different. CBS estimates gave NBC a 15.7 rating, ABC a 12.9 and CBS a 12.7. Each ratings point represents 904,000 homes.
NBC research vice president Gerald Jaffe said he didn't want to gloat over NBC's victory, "but this season was truly historic. We really did dominate."
The domination, which showed 13 NBC shows among the nation's 20 favorites, was led by "The Cosby Show," the top-rated series for the fourth consecutive season. No other network has finished first in all 30 weeks of the season since CBS did it in 1963-64; overall, NBC has now won or tied for first for 43 weeks in a row and is four weeks away from the all-time record.
Poltrack called the season "atypical" in that new shows didn't get a normal start-of-season audience sampling, and "viewers were frustrated" by the way the season trickled in.
Some went to cable. But a big beneficiary was the Fox Broadcasting lineup, which he said was up 49% in ratings over last season, much of that due to Fox's "Married . . . With Children" and "America's Most Wanted."
The sudden success of "Married" no doubt was "much to the chagrin of Terry Rakulta," Poltrack joked, referring to the Michigan housewife whose headline-making gripes about its ribald content prompted one sponsor to withdraw its advertising.
But both he and ABC research vice president Alan Wurtzel agreed that viewers started returning to the networks this year, sampling the new wares.
"My feeling is that, over the past four or five weeks, the three-network ratings and shares have in fact really stabilized, and are very similar to what they were a year ago," Wurtzel said in an interview. "I kind of feel it took all this time for everybody to kind of get back on track."
CBS, whose "Lonesome Dove" was the season's highest-rated miniseries, started its march back from a dismal third-place fall standing, rebounding with new programming in the first quarter of this year to second place in the ratings, Poltrack said.
That bodes well for next season, he added, provided CBS can correct a "significant weakness"--its long-standing inability to win ratings in the 8-9 p.m. time period.
Virtually all of CBS' 29 pilots now being considered are designed to work in that time period, he said, and if those chosen for series succeed there, "the domino effect of it will be dramatic."
Poltrack also predicted big things for CBS' much-publicized "Murphy Brown," even though that rookie sitcom was 32nd in the Nielsens for regularly scheduled series this season.
CBS thinks that "Brown" is "going to be around a long time and it's going to build an audience," he said, noting that two other long-running hits--NBC's "Cheers" and CBS' "MASH"--started slowly.
NBC's Jaffe, in discussing the continuing impact of cable, said that most of the 3% drop in audience occurred early in the season, and was due to viewers shifting to basic cable.
He also said viewing alternatives in cable have dramatically increased: The average household had only 17 cable channels a few years ago, but now has 25. The newest is NBC's CNBC business-news service.