Young-skewing weblets struggle for answers

HOLLYWOOD — What does it say about teen viewership of the networks today when even the homes of “WWF Smackdown” and “Dawson’s Creek” are down by double-digit percentages vs. a year ago?

In the continuation of a troubling several-year trend, ratings this seasons for teens are once again dropping at a faster clip than for any other audience segment.

It’s particularly vexing for older nets ABC, CBS and NBC — which seem to be more out of touch with today’s youth than ever before — but it’s a contagious epidemic that even the young-skewing weblets must now address.

The year-to-year drops for UPN and the WB can largely be traced to a dearth of new hits while longtime faves grow older, along with their audiences. (This hasn’t been so alarming for the WB; the gradual aging of its aud has helped it become stronger in the key 18-34 demo.)

Fox gains foothold

Fox has been the beneficiary of the teen declines experienced by the other five nets, as hits like “Grounded for Life” and “Dark Angel” have powered the net to a now-dominant position among viewers 12-17.

According to Nielsen estimates, Fox leads the network pack with a 4.0 rating/13 share among teens (up 8% vs. the 1999-2000 season) and is a full 3 share points ahead of runner-up ABC (2.9/10, down 26%). The WB is third (2.9/9, down 17%), followed by NBC (2.3/8, down 4%), UPN (2.2/7, down 15%) and CBS (1.9/7, flat).

While overall TV usage by teens has stayed flat vs. a year ago, the six broadcast nets are down a combined 10% (16.2/54 vs. 18.0/60), compared with a 2% fade among adults 18-49 and a 4% loss among adults 50-plus.

Cable has picked up the slack, but the increase is dispersed across the spectrum. Comedy Central, Disney Channel, FX and Lifetime have all gained 1 share this season, while MTV still leads the pack, albeit with a measly 4 share.

The dropoffs would be even larger for the broadcast nets if not for the latest wave of reality series like “Survivor: The Australian Outback” (CBS), “Temptation Island” (Fox) and “The Mole” (ABC). These skeins are among their respective nets’ top three shows among teens.

In fact, if not for “Survivor,” the three oldest nets — ABC, CBS and NBC — would be shut out of the season’s top 15 teen shows altogether. Fox dominates that list with 12 programs, while UPN (“WWF Smackdown”) and the WB (“7th Heaven”) have one show each.

While the nets use trend-of-the-week shows to attract teens today, they are not breeding viewers for tomorrow with their scripted programs.

In fact, it seems like they’re not even trying.

Shows like UPN’s “Moesha,” the WB’s “Gilmore Girls” and Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” for example, feature major characters in prominent storylines, but ABC, CBS and NBC have gradually tapered off the teen tales.

Just 10 years ago, the older nets’ lineups were well-stocked with shows like “Home Improvement” (ABC) and “Blossom” (NBC); heck, even CBS gave teens a voice in shows like “Evening Shade” and “Major Dad.”

What’s happened as the established nets continue to skew older is that their version of a family show has aged as well — witness dramas like “Providence,” “Judging Amy” and “That’s Life,” which feature thirtysomething single women living with a parental unit, or popular laffers like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Frasier,” which revolve around fortysomething men and their parents.

The teen audience isn’t seen as important to ABC, CBS and NBC in an increasingly fragmented TV universe in which the biggest advertiser bucks are paid for shows that attract adults aged 18-49. But have they lost tomorrow’s viewers by abandoning them today?

Sure, teens still flip over to the Big Three for special programming like the Super Bowl, the Grammys or celebrity editions of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” but they are certainly no longer turning there out of habit.

All of which has Fox licking its chops.

If the net is able to maintain such a Big Four dominance among teens in the coming years, it stands to reason that it will have a proportionately better chance of attracting this aud as it ages into adulthood.

At 15 years old and a teen itself, the net seems to be adjusting to puberty just fine.

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