Sweeps’ Limbo Riddle: How Low Can Webs Go?

It’s perhaps appropriate that Fox Broadcasting Co. recently launched a latenight TV version of Mad magazine, since the slogan “What? Me worry?” is beginning to look appropriate for the broadcast networks.

Network viewing – which has been in decline since the new season began – slipped to a historic low during the November sweeps, the annual ritual used to determine local advertising rates.

The Big Three webs attracted just 54% of the primetime audience. Even though those networks haven’t achieved a combined 60 share since February 1994 (having never dipped below that level previously in a major November, February or May survey), the 5-share slump compared to last year was eye-opening, especially since Fox Broadcasting Co. was also down slightly.

Though much of that decline can be attributed to CBS’ primetime losses (23% drops in households and the key demographic of adults 18-49), rival networks weren’t the beneficiaries. Rather, cable picked up most of those wayward viewers, with basic services up 22% over the corresponding period a year ago and pay channels gaining as well.

The question now is how low viewership of the major broadcast networks will go, and how long it will be before the Big Three attract half or less of the primetime audience – a remarkable concept if one considers that they combined for 76% of t he primetime pie as recently as November 1986 (before Fox entered the picture) and had never slipped below an 80 share in November or February before 1984.

“It is getting tougher out there, ” says Giles Lundberg, senior VP of research & marketing at Fox Broadcasting, acknowledging that broadcasting is “absolutely” losing audience to the growing multitude of choices via cable.

Broadcast execs have long predicted gradual loss of viewership and even hedged their bets by moving into those new technologies, from cable to pay-per-view. They point out that the networks still remain the only way to reach a mass audience, with the prime example being the huge numbers NBC has drawn throughout the fall with its devastating Thursday lineup.

Dropping digits

Still, the networks have seen their numbers drop to dishearteningly low levels, with each network facing at least a few timeslots where single-digit shares – once unheard of- are a real and regular possibility.

Despite those, elements of doom and gloom, NBC came through November with much to crow about. The network won its fourth consecutive major sweep in adults 18-49 and third straight in households, also delivering its affiliates a solid leadin advantage from 10:30-11 p.m. (the key half-hour leading into late local newscasts) and the first latenight sweeps victory for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” over “Late Show With David Letterman” in the seven major surveys since the CBS latenighter premiered.

The Peacock network was the only broadcast web to score gains over last year in any category. Aggregate three-network numbers – a 33.3 rating, 54 share in Nielsen – represent the lowest ever during a major sweeps, below the previous low of 33.4/57 in May, a month when averages are traditionally lower because of a decrease in HUT (homes using TV) levels.

This year’s 9% ratings decline is perhaps less alarming than the total share, which shows just how viewing alternatives continue to chip away at broadcasting, since Fox was also down slightly and the new UPN and WB services haven’t produced appreciable gains for the independent stations carrying that programming.

Demos less dire

About the only good news is that the total three-network decline is slightly less among the coveted adults 18-49 demographic, at 7%, though that’s largely due to NBC’s 7% increase fueled by its Thursday lineup.

CBS’ weak fourth-place finish among adults 18-49 is particularly daunting in light of the web’s stated desire last spring to reach a younger audience. New entertainment president Leslie Moonves is clearly seeking a more gradual course correction as he brings back such older-skewing fare as “Diagnosis Murder” and “Due South.”

ABC has hammered home the point throughout the fall that its strength is spread across more time periods than NBC, as the Alphabet web wins 55% of primetime half-hours among adults 18-49. By contrast NBC regularly wins just nine out of 44 half-hours (23%), with six of those victories centered on Thursday.

ABC erosion

Still, NBC exhibited growth five nights of the week, while ABC experienced erosion on some of its strongest nights. ABC also watched NBC cut into its Tuesday-night dominance – as “Frasier” significantly narrowed its deficit behind “Home Improvement.” The Alphabet web also saw a sharp decline in its Friday comedy block, where Fox’s “The X-Files” did most of the damage, surging 18% among adults 18-49 compared with last November.

Despite a year-to-year decline, Fox notes that it’s performance was negatively affected by the heavily promoted event that wasn’t, the scheduled Nov. 4 Mike Tyson-Buster Mathis Jr. fight, which was canceled at the last minute. “If the Tyson fight had gone on, we’d be looking at some gains,” Lundberg says.

And to show that the broadcast networks can still produce an occasional hit just like in the good ol’ days, NBC’s “ER” scored the highest rating during the sweep (on Nov. 9) by any drama series in more than 15 years. The Warner Bros, series was also the top-rated program of the sweep, becoming the only drama to rank first in November since “Dallas” did it back in 1984.

NBC also had the top six movies in key demographics, topped by “Jurassic Park,” which scored a 15.3/23 on Sunday, Nov. 26, to help the web win the night.

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