NEW YORK — The trade association of the cable industry says the Big Four broadcast networks are hemorrhaging viewers so dramatically that their primetime Nielsen ratings have plunged even in homes that don’t subscribe to cable.

In an analysis of the May Nielsen sweeps from 1992-97, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau reported Tuesday that the aggregate primetime rating of the Big Four in non-cable homes — where the broadcasters have the closest thing to a captive audience — declined from a 45.9 in May ’92 to a 38.1 in May ’97.

Jonathan Sims, VP of research for the CAB, said, “It’s a quality issue.” The Big Four keep renewing veteran shows that are losing audiences because the new series might do even worse, he says.

“The networks are bringing back 42 primetime series for 1997-98 with at least a two-year track record,” he said. “And 30 of them suffered ratings erosion last year. That’s a poor foundation from which to launch 36 new primetime shows,” Sims added.

The broadcast networks have other explanations for the falloff in viewers in non-cable homes.

“The UPN and WB networks started broadcasting during the period between 1995 and 1997,” when the ratings of the Big Four dropped most drastically, said Dave Poltrack, head of research for CBS. Nielsen shows that UPN went up from an average of 2.2 million primetime homes in May ’95 to 2.4 million in May ’97, according to Poltrack, and WB jumped from 1.95 million in May ’95 to 2.43 million in May ’97.

“These are two new broadcast networks with original, high-quality programming,” Poltrack said. “And they’re getting higher ratings than any cable network.”

Poltrack’s other point is that most of the people who watch TV for many hours a day have become cable subscribers, even if they’re poor and can barely afford the monthly bills. The homes that still are cable holdouts in 1997 “are probably the lightest viewers,” Poltrack said, “the ones who are least interested in watching broadcast television.”

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