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TV networks desperately seeking young-adult viewers

As they get set to announce their fall lineups in New York, they look for ways to draw the 18-to-49-year-old demo and reverse troubling ratings trends.

May 11, 2012|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert Greenblatt, who transformed Showtime with such shows as "Weeds" and "Dexter," is president of entertainment at NBC.
Robert Greenblatt, who transformed Showtime with such shows as "Weeds"… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Earlier this week, long-languishing NBC ordered a fall sitcom with an apt title: "Save Me."

As they get ready to roll out their fall lineups next week in New York, rival networks know the feeling. TV executives are scrambling to counter steep drop-offs among young-adult viewers and some record-low series ratings this spring.

Fox's once-dominant singing show"American Idol" has seen ratings tumble by nearly 30% to its lowest totals since summer 2002, according to Nielsen. Of the Top 10 programs this season among total viewers, not a single freshman series makes the cut. And for viewers ages 18 to 49 — the category most advertisers care about — the only first-season shows to attain genuine hit status areCBS' raunchy sitcom"2 Broke Girls" and Fox's over-the-top singing contest"The X Factor" — both barely scraping under the wire at Nos. 9 and 10 respectively.

Despite the troubling signs, the big networks are still projected to fetch a record $9.5 billion with advance ad sales this summer, when up to 85% of the commercials are sold, according to a Barclays estimate. Even though network viewing has been on the wane for years, broadcast TV is still the last bastion of the mass audience, a forum around which millions of Americans can be reached by advertisers.

But experts believe the networks are jeopardizing their futures by failing to deliver programs that appeal to fickle young viewers distracted by tablets, smartphones, social media and other demands on their attention.

"In the 18 to 49 category, there are more and more choices," said Bill Carroll, vice president at Katz Television Group in New York, which helps advise local TV stations. "Younger viewers are watching programs on the Internet or watching on cable."

As Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University, concluded: "Regular broadcast television is just not that essential in the lives of many young adults."

It's hardly all gloom for the old TV networks, of course. Nielsen has for the last few years included time-shifted viewing on DVRs in the ultimate ratings totals and the audience measure giant is beginning to lump in online and video-on-demand services as well. That translates into larger audiences — and larger ad sales — than one might think after a quick glance at the early ratings figures.

"You can't read the next day's [ratings] numbers and take a real meaningful read from them anymore," CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl said in a phone interview. Executives now often wait for data that show how many people watched a program on a DVR up to seven days after the original broadcast.

CBS, No. 1 among all viewers thanks to durable scripted hits such as "NCIS"and "The Big Bang Theory,"predicted earlier this month that it will break financial records in 2012, thanks partly to growing revenue from online distribution of its shows on platforms such as Amazon.comand Netflix. That's true even though CBS has long had the oldest-skewing audience of any broadcaster.

In addition to "2 Broke Girls," the first-year drama "Person of Interest" has delivered encouraging ratings, and Ashton Kutcher successfully replaced Charlie Sheen on"Two and a Half Men," one of the network's biggest hits.

"We feel very good about our future, both creatively and financially," CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves told Wall Street analysts in a conference call.

Indeed, among the five major broadcast networks, CBS actually gained 3% more viewers in 18 to 49 compared with last season. NBC also posted a gain, but without the Super Bowl it would be flat. Meanwhile, the others were all either even or down, with Fox falling off by 9%, and the CW dropping 11%. And since January, many of the ratings results have been even worse.

Broadcasters have likewise been relieved to see a slowdown in the once-torrid growth pace for rival cable networks, which are free of many of the content and language restrictions under which the big networks labor. And the broadcast channels are plumping their balance sheets by squeezing in more commercials — even though that's a potential annoyance that may be driving some viewers to DVRs or elsewhere.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox averaged 11 minutes of ad time per evening hour this season (not including promotions and station IDs), translating into two more 30-second spots each hour than a decade ago, according to ad firm Horizon Media in New York.

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