For the first time in its 21-year history, Fox Broadcasting will win the television season by netting the largest audience in prime time and should collect blue ribbons in every major demographic category.
The regular TV season ends tonight, but Fox's destiny was determined, in large part, by the continued strength of "American Idol," even though the show's ratings have declined about 10% this year. The singing competition remains the No. 1 show on TV and wraps up its seventh season tonight with a new champion.
Fox also was not as damaged by the Hollywood writers strike as its rivals, which are more dependent on scripted shows. Fox was the only major broadcaster to increase its ratings this season. They jumped 5% from the 2006-07 season.
Through Sunday night, Fox had averaged 11.1 million viewers in prime time each week for the season, compared with 10.5 million viewers for second-place CBS, according to Nielsen Media Research ratings.
CBS typically boasts TV's largest audience, but its ratings skidded during the strike when it was forced to air weeks of reruns of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and other programs. CBS has since returned to original episodes and had the largest prime-time audience during the May sweeps, which also end tonight.
This would be the fourth straight season that Fox finished first among 18- to 49-year-old viewers, the demographic used to calculate prime-time advertising rates.
"For us, it's all about 18- to 49-year-olds. That's who we service our advertisers with," said Peter Liguori, Fox's entertainment chairman, adding that the challenge is for the network to claim the prize for a fifth time next season. "We have strength across the board, and we are going to build on it."
Fox benefited by airing the Super Bowl in February, although executives noted that the network would have won the season even without the game. Fox also boosted its ratings last fall by running fewer early-round Major League Baseball playoff games, which typically generate low ratings and bring down the average.
The network, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., said it would be the first time in 10 years that a network ended the season in first place in all key demographic categories, including men, women, young men, young women, teenagers and households.
"This was a long time in coming," television historian Tim Brooks said. "Their business model -- programming only 15 hours a week in prime time -- has given them an advantage. They can concentrate on fewer hours at a time when NBC, CBS and ABC are still trying to fill 22 hours. I wouldn't be surprised to see the others eventually scale back."
Fox programs one fewer hour each evening than ABC, CBS and NBC because Fox turns over its 10 p.m. slot to TV stations for local newscasts. Brooks said that Fox's first stab at programming, a talk show in 1986 with Joan Rivers, was a flop. But Fox established itself as a player when it began televising National Football League games in 1994.
As measured by 18- to 49-year-old viewers, it will be a photo finish for second place. Through Sunday, ABC was about 40,000 viewers ahead of CBS in the demographic. NBC is expected to come in fourth, Spanish-language Univision fifth, and the CW, a joint venture between CBS Corp. and Warner Bros., a distant sixth.