NBC wins at lowball

Web tops season as Big Three tumble

The 1996-97 primetime Nielsen season wrapped Wednesday night with the long-anticipated NBC victory and an equally predictable flurry of historically low ratings, but also some surprisingly widespread losses across the schedule of each network.

Biggest dropoffs came at ABC, down 13% in adults 18-49 (based on 35 weeks of the season, three nights short of full-season figures), but NBC also declined by 8% in that demo and CBS slid by 4% in its target, adults 25-54. Fox alone shows gains for the season, though if nights of the Super Bowl and post-season baseball are factored out, Fox slips by 4% in adults 18-49 and 2% in adults 18-34.

Perhaps what this season will be remembered for is Fox’s historic second-place tie with ABC among adults 18-49 (according to current projections), the demographic that most closely reflects the aim of programmers and preferences of advertisers.

In fact, counting just the 15 “common time” hours programmed by Fox, that net pulls 0.3 rating points ahead of ABC in the 18-49 race for second (behind winner NBC), a margin big enough that it can’t be explained away even by those who’d discount Fox’s Super Bowl and baseball boosts.

It was NBC, though, that owned the ’96-97 campaign, despite significant declines that were aggravated by the loss of the World Series and Super Bowl. The Peacock’s 24% margin of victory in adults 18-49 over second-placers Fox and ABC (27%, counting only regularly scheduled programming) is the biggest for any web in 10 years. NBC also won 32 of the season’s 35 weeks by that key measure.

Winning with less

With May 20 and 21 results still to be figured into season-long averages, CBS has projected these final results: NBC, a 10.5 rating, 18 share (down 10% from ’95-96 results, for the lowest season-long winner ever and lowest NBC rating ever); CBS, 9.6/16 (equaling its 1995-96 rating, which was, at the time, the worst ever for any of the Big Three); ABC, 9.2/15 (down 13%, for the new worst season-long rating in Big Three history); Fox, 7.7/13 (up 5%).

As recently as three years ago, no third-place net had ever ended a season with as low an average as NBC’s winning 10.5 average from this season.

Reasons for these historic lows include the vastly more competitive TV landscape of today, with its huge increases in the number of channels available in most TV homes, as well as the nets’ willingness to sacrifice household numbers in their pursuit of the tougher-to-reach young-adult audience segments that carry a premium with advertisers.

The combined Big Three drop in households this season is 8.2%. That’s the second-biggest falloff in the 47 years since 1953-54, beating only the 9.4% drop of the ’87-88 term, when Nielsen’s switch from audimeters to peoplemeters apparently added to actual viewership losses.

To make matters worse, this year’s hefty decline follows another 8% plunge last year and a 7% drop from the year before. Over the past three seasons, the Big Three rating has tumbled by 22%.

In adults 18-49, season-long averages are: NBC, a 6.7 rating, 18 share (down 8% vs. results for last season); ABC, 5.4/15 (down 13%), tied with Fox, 5.4/15 (up 4%); and CBS, 4.3/12 (down 7%).

Shifting sands

Of particular concern to the nets is how all of their schedules are suffering from widespread erosion.

NBC is down this season vs. last in adults 18-49 on every night of the week except Saturday, with double-digit losses on Monday, Tuesday and Sunday.

ABC shows 18-49 losses on seven of seven nights, including double-digit drops on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Sunday falloff is 21%, the second-biggest drop on any schedule, ahead of only Fox’s 23% loss on Friday.

CBS declined on five of seven nights in adults 18-49 (up on Fridays and Sundays) and is down on four of seven nights in its target adults 25-54 demo (up on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays).

Fox is down in adults 18-49 on six of seven nights, though double-digit losses have hit only on Friday (which lost the powerful “X-Files”).

The message, according to Giles Lundberg, Fox’s research-marketing senior veep, is that the webs need to generate more “event” TV and “appointment” TV, particularly when charting the course of their series programs.

NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield commented, “We look at any declines really closely. Certainly it’s a concern.” He thinks a loss of momentum from baseball and election interruptions last fall are partly to blame for NBC’s season-long losses and notes that NBC’s 18-49 drop is reduced to 5% when only regular programming is counted.

CBS notes that it’s chopped NBC’s households advantage by 57% this season vs. last. In adults 25-54, however, CBS eliminated a more modest 20% of NBC’s year-ago bulge, remaining a full 2 rating points behind for the season. And in adults 18-49, CBS whittled away only 11% of the NBC bulge.

Considering that NBC loses the Super Bowl and World Series (both of which it gets back next season) in those comparisons, it’s debatable how much actual progress CBS has made in closing the gap on the Peacock web.

Still, CBS has taken a big step by reversing the momentum of past seasons and gaining ground on the competition.

Eye in focus

The Eye web has now equaled or improved upon its year-ago household rating in three of the past six seasons. NBC has suffered a loss for the first time in four years, while ABC has failed to show any gain for the 16th time in 17 seasons. Fox earned its second households rating improvement in its past five seasons.

The Big Four continue to suffer through a hit-programming drought. Fox scored the season’s key rookie success with “King of the Hill,” which teamed with the re-skedded “X-Files” to put Fox into control of Sunday, TV’s highest viewership night.

Otherwise, it was a lean year for rookies. Beyond “King,” the most promising newcomers included ABC’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and ”Soul Man,” CBS’ ”Everybody Loves Raymond” (a Monday success after nearly dying on Fridays) and NBC’s ”Men Behaving Badly” and ”Suddenly Susan.”

Moving success

Fox pulled off the season’s biggest scheduling coup by moving ”The X-Files” to Sunday, then adding ”King of the Hill” and turning the 7-8 p.m. hour over to rotating reality specs. The result was an other-worldly 51% improvement for the season among adults 18-49. CBS’ stroke of scheduling genius was the shift of ”Touched by an Angel” from Saturday to Sunday. While the switch clearly weakened the Eye on Saturday, CBS bounced back on Sundays after years of erosion and demographically weak programming. ”Angel” improved that hour by 40% for CBS in households and 49% in adults 18-49.

When ”Angel” departed Saturdays, though, NBC pounced. Its ”Thrillogy” dramas (even including the failed ”Dark Skies”) catapulted NBC from fourth to a first-place tie on Saturdays in the 18-49 demo. NBC’s Littlefield believes that’s a first in TV history for an all-rookie schedule.

NBC says it’s also the adults 18-49 king of longforms for the ’96-97 season, with the top nine overall movie telecasts.

CBS Entertainment prez Leslie Moonves believes his net has accomplished in ’96-97 what it set out to do, ”stop the bleeding from last year.” Despite equaling its year-ago households average, the Eye still dropped at least slightly in virtually every important demo, but the key for CBS may be that its declines are much smaller than the ”free-fall” losses it suffered the previous two seasons.

ABC suffered historic losses for a second straight season, but still won 39% of the schedule’s half-hours in adults 18-49, the highest percentage of any net. ABC also won the most nights last season in adults 18-49, while also falling to fourth in that demo more often than any other web besides CBS.

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