Network Numbers Continue To Dwindle

The razzle-dazzle of November sweeps will provide a nice diversion, but there is no hiding the fact that this year has produced no surefire breakout hits and the networks are suffering serious erosion up and down the rankings in the Nielsen ratings.

NBC’s Thursday lineup is the exception that proves the rule. The top two ranked shows – “ER,” 23.5 rating and 38 share, and “Seinfeld, ” 22.6/34 – easily are posting more spectacular numbers than last year’s one-two punch “Home Improvement, ” 21.5/32 and “Grace Under Fire,” 20.5/31.

Yet despite the fact that a third of the TV nation seems hypnotized by NBC’s lineup, there is even some small trouble there – “Caroline in the City” is ranked fourth overall with an impressive 18.8/29, but it only holds 83% of its “Seinfeld” lead-in. In other words, “ER” might actually do better with a stronger show on at 9:30.

But after NBC Thursday comes the deluge. Through seven weeks this year, there are only three shows with a 30 share (“ER, ” “Seinfeld” and “Friends”) and the l0th-ranked show has only a 15.3 rating. (All figures are based on Nielsen data.)

Last year at this time, by comparison, six shows had a 30 share, and the l0th-ranked show, “Ellen,” had a 16.0 rating. Four years ago, a 17.0 rating was needed to crack the top 10. A combination of age and new time periods has knocked four of last year’s best – “Roseanne,” “Grace Under Fire,” “60 Minutes,” and “Murder, She Wrote” – out of the top 10 altogether, despite the lower standards.

And the erosion accelerates outside the top 10. Four years ago, 27 shows had at least a 14.0 rating, and a 15.4 was necessary to make the top 20. (That show, the CBS Sunday Movie would be ranked 10th this year.)

Last year, 17 shows produced at least a 14.0 rating and a 13.5 was needed to break into the top 20. This year, there are only 15 shows with a 14.0 rating and a mediocre 12.6 rating is enough for the number 20 slot. That show, “The Nanny,” would have been ranked 30th last year and 37th four years ago, when a 12.6 likely would have gotten the sitcom booted off CBS’ Monday lineup.

In 1991, an 11.0 rating put a show on the edge, in danger of being canceled – after all, “Royal Family,” 11.2/19, and “The Carol Burnett Show,” 11.0/19, were not top competitors, ranking 54th and 55th, respectively.

Last year’s 42nd ranked show, “Rescue 911,” which clocked in at 11.1/18, did not make this season’s CBS fall lineup (hardly the toughest lineup to crack anymore). This season, an 11.0 rating is good enough for a tie for 36th, and the shows – the CBS Sunday Movie, “Hope & Gloria” and “Law & Order” – all have secure futures.

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