Where did everybody go?
One month into the new TV season, overall audience levels have taken a hard tumble from those last year. New shows have sputtered, and scores of established series have slipped in the standings. Even some of the biggest hits -- "Friends," "ER," "Survivor," "CSI" and "Monday Night Football" -- have lost millions of viewers.
Network executives can't explain it.
"When there are so many top 10 shows showing significant declines, and on different networks and on different nights of the week, you really start wondering what's going on," said Mitch Metcalf, scheduling chief for General Electric Co.'s NBC. "A lot of us are scratching our heads."
The mystery of the more-than-3% drop could end up costing broadcasters tens of millions of dollars.
The networks sold a record $9.3 billion in prime-time commercial spots for the season -- by promising advertisers higher ratings. If viewership levels don't creep up soon, networks will be forced to give advertisers millions of dollars in free air time to make up for the faulty ratings guarantees.
Advertisers, which allocate their money based on ratings points, are watching closely.
"It's a big concern, particularly when you're paying the kind of dollars that we have to pay, and the target audience that we're looking for is shifting away from the networks," said Bill Cella, chairman of ad-buying firm Magna Global USA.
Most advertisers are being cautious, he said, holding off on new orders, and that is causing the market to soften.
There are a lot of reasons for the viewership slide, though they don't necessarily add up.
A major one is undoubtedly the stellar ratings for the Fox Broadcasting Co.'s telecasts of Major League Baseball playoffs and the solid performance of the World Series, also on the News Corp.-owned network. That has enabled Fox to steal from its rivals and be the only broadcaster to increase viewership this season -- it's up 32%.
"Baseball has just been a beast to compete against," said Lloyd Braun, entertainment chairman at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC. "It's been a real anomaly this fall."
Cable channels have picked off some of the network's viewers by offering original programming. And, as always, there are other entertainment options, such as video games and big-screen movies, to lure people away from the tube.
TV executives noticed that they had a problem as soon as the fall season began last month -- long before the baseball playoffs heated up.
One demographic group, in particular, was noticeably smaller: young men. The industry is fretting as 8% of men ages 18 to 34 have apparently sworn off television this season.
"It's hard to buy into the explanation that all of these young men suddenly decided to stop watching television at the same time," said Braun, who speculated that a factor for ABC could have been two lackluster "Monday Night Football" matchups.
NBC and Viacom Inc.'s CBS have suffered the biggest overall losses. Both are down 14% this season in the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers pay the most to reach. NBC's top comedy "Friends" is down 25% among such viewers, and CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" has dropped 22%.
The smaller networks that target younger viewers -- Viacom's UPN and the WB -- also have felt big ratings bites.
The WB, for example, has seen nearly one-fifth of its audience evaporate. The network is owned by Time Warner Inc. and Tribune Co., which also publishes The Times.
"We're staring at numbers that don't make any sense," said Jordan Levin, co-chief executive of the WB network. "If these declines continue, it's going to cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of the year."
The problem hasn't struck all networks equally.
Disney's long-suffering ABC hasn't felt the sting as harshly as its rivals. Its ratings are flat overall and are down only 3% among those 18 to 49.
On the other side of the scale, some shows have posted gains, including NBC's reality contest "Fear Factor" and newsmagazines such as NBC's "Dateline" and ABC's "20/20" and "Primetime."
In their quest for answers, executives at networks that have been hardest hit have been hounding Nielsen Media Research, the firm that measures TV audience levels. The executives say the sudden drop in viewership suggests that Nielsen's numbers are faulty.
No other company calculates TV ratings, so there is no way to independently verify its findings.
What's more, Nielsen relies on 20-year-old technology to estimate audience levels. In the 5,100 homes nationwide wired by Nielsen, viewers must punch buttons on VCR-size boxes connected to their TV sets when they watch a show.
Critics have long wondered whether Nielsen viewers actually do this every time they sit down to watch TV. That raises questions about the validity of the data that are culled each night from participating homes and sent to Nielsen's clients, the networks, by dawn.