They can move “Murder, She Wrote,” revamp the entire primetime lineup and hire Leslie Moonves as entertainment chief, but there’s one thing CBS can’t change: Channel 62 in Detroit.

While most of the finger-pointing for CBS’ less-than-spectacular season debut will no doubt be directed at the network’s programming, a severely weakened distribution system is also taking its toll at Black Rock. Poor shows alone cannot explain the network’s astonishing ratings drop of 50% in big markets like Detroit and Atlanta – two of several cities where CBS lost its powerful VHF affils to Fox and now is broadcast on weaker UHF channels.

During the Sept. 11-17 week, the Eye web finished fourth in the national ratings race, and the network’s results weren’t encouraging during the available portion of the official premiere week that began Sept. 18.

Naturally, CBS’ dramatic over-haul of its primetime schedule with 11 new series will take time to have any impact, but the combination of a whole new CBS along with new and weaker affiliates in many top markets will further delay the network’s makeover.

“There is no question about it,” says David Poltrack, CBS’ executive vice president of research and planning, “while continuing shows hold up, a weaker affiliate hurts you in movies or anything new where you are trying to build audience.”

As a result of Fox’s landmark deal with New World Communications over a year ago, CBS lost powerhouse affiliates in many top markets. CBS has found homes in all the markets where it was orphaned, but its new affiliates are in many cases still establishing themselves. The switches have been made sporadically for the last year.

In Detroit, CBS switched from VHF powerhouse WJBK to WWJ-Channel 62. Before the CBS affiliation, the station barely registered in the ratings books and is still looking to establish itself.

In the first week of the new season (Sept. 11-17), WWJ posted a 5.2 rating and 8 share average during CBS’ primetime lineup, according to Nielsen. By comparison, last year WJBK posted a 10.5/17 for CBS primetime in the week of Sept. 12-18. That’s a drop of over 50% in a top 10 market. In Atlanta, CBS’s new affiliate, WGNX, averaged a 4.5/7 share for the first week of the new season. Last year, CBS affiliate WAGA averaged an 11.1/18. Again, the Eye web has lost half its audience in a top 10 market. It’s a similar story in Milwaukee and it will likely repeat itself in Dallas, where the Eye web just switched to a new UHF home.

Even in markets where CBS switched from one VHF to another VHF, it suffered a ratings loss. In Tampa, the nation’s 16th-largest market, CBS posted an 11.6/18 on WTVT last year and an 8.9/13 on WTSP this year for the first week of the new season.

But some viewers will find shows they want to see, regardless of the station. WGPR in Detroit acquired the off-network rights to “Seinfeld” and is running the show at 6 p.m., where it posted a 3.4/7 in its first week and is currently averaging a 4.0/8. That beat Fox affiliate WJBK’s 6 p.m. news. But few viewers stuck around for the “CBS Evening News,” which is averaging less than a 2 rating.

While on the surface that would seem to indicate that a weak station does not automatically translate to low numbers, imagine what “Seinfeld” might do on a stronger Detroit station.

In many cases, it’s not just signal strength that is hurting CBS. Many of the Eye web’s new affils were previously either Fox affils or indies, and their programming libraries and strategies are not ideal for a Big Three affil.

Poltrack says there is still an element of confusion in many of the markets where switches occurred. “It’s difficult to get new sampling,” he says, adding that the network will continue with its heavy promotional blitz and hopes to improve sampling when NBC and ABC are busy with the baseball playoffs and World Series in October.

Conversely, Fox is posting much stronger numbers in the markets where it has switched to a VHF from a UHF outlet. In the nine markets where Fox is on stronger VHF stations, its numbers have increased by 15% in rating and 8% in share, compared to their previous affiliates.

“In general, Fox came out way ahead in all of these switches,” says Jack Fentress, vice president and director of programming at Petry Television.

It’s not just CBS that has suffered from Fox’s aggressive efforts to upgrade distribution. In Kansas City, NBC saw its numbers drop when it went from a VHF to UHF. New NBC affiliate KSHB has also not seen much growth from its switch from Fox to the Peacock web.

On the flip side, it might be assumed that Fox would see its national average improve with its strong new affiliates; in the past, Fox ratings have always fallen off in the national numbers compared to the metered markets. But that trend is continuing, Fox says, because its new stations are so much stronger that the gap between metered and national markets is not shrinking.

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