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The TV Season Finale

A Milestone Year, for a Decidedly Dubious Reason

Miniseries did well during May sweeps and NBC was again the overall season winner, but average audience shares for the Big Three networks dipped below half of prime-time viewing for the first time.


The major networks began to look a little like ratings dinosaurs during the just-concluded 1996-97 TV season, while NBC--despite losing some of its grandeur--remained the industry's Tyrannosaurus rex.

NBC not only lumbered off with the season's ratings crown but also this week wrapped up its 10th consecutive win during a sweeps period--the key months local stations use to negotiate advertising rates.

CBS finished second in overall viewing during May, as every network but NBC equaled or improved its results versus a year ago.

Even so, ABC capped a historically low season with a disappointing sweeps performance, failing to make a splash with its big-budget miniseries, "The Shining" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." The network did eke out second place in the key demographics that dictate ad rates, while CBS remained last by that standard.

"[Viewers] came back for the big events," said CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves, referring to the sweeps. "We feel like if you put on quality shows, they will come."

The networks obviously weren't so compelling, however, for the duration of the broadcast year, which began in September and concluded Wednesday.

During that period, cable and other alternatives continued to take a sizable bite out of the broadcast audience, as ABC, CBS and NBC for the first time dipped below half of prime-time viewing on an average night, combining for 49% of the audience.

The network decline has been severe. Fifteen years ago, the Big Three networks totaled more than 80% of the audience. A decade ago, 46 prime-time series averaged a 15 rating or higher, while this season only eight did.

To say all those viewers left network television would be misleading, since Fox adds to the pie and two baby networks, UPN and WB, have joined the fray; moreover, the four networks still attract roughly 60% of nightly viewing despite the proliferation of options, with nearly 70% of homes receiving several dozen channels thanks to cable.

"Part of it is that there are more and more entertainment options out there, and not just on the television dial," said Giles Lundberg, Fox's head of research and marketing.

Nevertheless, there's no arguing that ABC, CBS and NBC continue to erode dramatically, losing 8% of their combined audience this season (the percentage drops to 4% with Fox included). At the same time, cable maintained the steady and inexorable growth it's enjoyed in recent years, up 9% in prime time, due in part to more channels as well as to greater emphasis on original programming.

"It's growth both from the newer guys and the more mature networks," said Bob Sieber, head of research for the Turner cable networks.

Despite their ratings slide, the networks find some solace in the fact that they stemmed the tide of viewer defections during May, as audiences showed up for some of the big miniseries like "The Odyssey" and "The Last Don," as well as events such as "Ellen's" coming out and the birth on "Mad About You."

In the current environment, however, gains for one network come largely at the expense of another, rather than from cable. And except for certain events, like the Super Bowl or Olympics, viewers who don't watch network television seem harder than ever to woo back.

Within the network universe, NBC--the network with the Peacock logo--can again crow about victories in prime time, late night (where "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" maintains a substantial lead over "Late Show With David Letterman"), early morning ("Today" widened the gap versus "Good Morning America") and a first-place tie with ABC in nightly news. Even the third-place daytime lineup is in its most competitive position in years.

Still, NBC's prime-time ratings dropped significantly from last season. The network was watched by 15.2 million people during an average hour, compared to 17 million the year before. By contrast, CBS (13.8 million) and Fox (11.6 million) were both up slightly.

The big loser was clearly ABC, which lost 13% of its audience, dropping behind CBS to an average of 13.5 million viewers.

ABC finished second among adults 18-49, the most crucial age group to most advertisers, barely edging Fox, which wound up with its best relative finish in its 10-year history.

ABC's problems are numerous but stem principally from the decline of key programs like "Roseanne," "Home Improvement" and "Grace Under Fire" while failing to generate new hits to replace them. NBC hastened that demise by scheduling some of its most popular shows, including "Frasier," against ABC's once (but no longer) dominant Tuesday lineup.

Thursday's "Must See TV" roster, meanwhile, continues to separate NBC from the pack, with "ER" edging "Seinfeld" as the most-watched program for the second straight year.

Those shows, each attracting more than 30 million viewers a week, are largely responsible for NBC winning the last two seasons. ABC, in fact, actually won more nights, underscoring the importance of that lineup in NBC's margin of victory.

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