Statistical Eye view from the basement

From David Letterman’s Top Ten List, “Good Things About Being a Fourth-Place Network”: 9. Can address all your viewers by name; 4. Don’t get that paranoid feeling people are watching you; 3. If networks were Beatles we’d be Ringo.

Though Letterman’s material is always sharpest when his network is embattled, there’s a slight problem with the idea of CBS being a fourth-place network – it ain’t exactly true. The buzz in TV circles certainly sounds impressive, or ominous depending on one’s vantage-point: “Hey, did you hear that Fox beat CBS last week, the first time one of the Big Three has ever finished in fourth?”

But the comparison is really apples and oranges. It’s the easiest way to make statistics lie or at least mislead – compare two distinctly incomparable situations and make a proclamation based on the numbers. The fall season is barely under way and the press releases and media are already at it.

Fox finished the Sept. 11-17 week with an 8.4 rating and 14 share, while CBS tallied only an 8.0/14. (ABC won the week with an 11.3/19, NBC finished second with a 9.8/17.) Granted, CBS’ numbers are poor, but Fox beat CBS on an uneven playing field, scheduling only 15 hours for a week, while each of the Big Three programs 22 hours a week.

Aware of this discrepancy, Fox spins its victory by showing it also beat CBS in “common time,” the hours where the networks went head-to-head. There, Fox obviously still had an 8.4/14, while CBS scored only a 7.9/13 (ABC slipped to a 10.9/18; NBC to a 9.1/15).

News exemption

This is closer to reality, but at best it’s apples and pears. Yes, the fact that the Big Three do worse in common time comparisons is testimony to Fox’s impact on network television (compared to 10-11 p.m., when the webs face the late local news). But it still doesn’t resolve the issue – namely, that CBS has to come up with programming to fill 22 hours each week, while Fox can marshal its resources toward occupying just 15 hours.

Unfortunately for CBS, even removing the symbolic stigma of finishing fourth cannot cover up the fact that the No. 1 item on Letterman’s list aptly sums up the web’s performance thus far: “You have reached maximum sucking potential.”

CBS flat out stunk, while Fox had a solid week, with a strong premiere by “Strange Luck” (7.3/15) on Friday and another good showing from its Tuesday movie and Thursday lineup. And its season premiere of “The Simpsons” won its time period with a 12.9/20.

Murder’s shadow

Meanwhile, CBS’ “Cybill” and a new sitcom, “Almost Perfect” averaged a 9.5/15 in “Murder, She Wrote’s” old Sunday time period – 39% (or 6.1 rating points) below what the venerable mystery show averaged there last year, with only so-so demographic appeal.

Two of CBS’ most hyped new shows, “Bless This House” (7.5/13) and “Central Park West” (7.5/12) looked particularly weak on Sept. 13. They followed those debuts with equally uninspired numbers on Sept. 20. “Bless” earned an 8.0/14 (although the dismal premiere of NBC’s “seaQuest DSV,” 7.2/12, saved CBS from the cellar).

“CPW” fared far worse, earning an atrocious 6.0/9 – 20% below its already dismal first performance, and more than four points below all three of the other networks. Making a disaster into a catastrophe, “Courthouse” – which bowed on the 13th with a respectable 9.2/16 – lost nearly a quarter of its audience on the 20th scoring only a 7.0/12 as NBC’s “Law & Order” (12.8/22) returned with a new episode.

Call it fourth, call it third with an asterisk, call it anything you want, but don’t expect advertisers to call CBS at all if things don’t improve soon.

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