Year marked by few new hits, ratings decline

Flashy Fox and steady CBS will once again cross the finish line as winners at the close of a season that produced only a few frosh hits and saw most returning skeins post year-to-year declines.

With the two editions of “American Idol” easily ranking Nos. 1 and 2 for the 2006-07 campaign, which ends tonight, Fox dominated the homestretch. CBS didn’t control any single night but was competitive throughout the week, and its bottom-line averages got a boost from February’s Super Bowl telecast.

These nets were the season leaders in key ratings categories, with Fox prevailing for a third straight year in the industry’s most coveted ratings category — adults 18-49 — while CBS made it four straight in adults 25-54 and five in a row in total viewers.

ABC, meanwhile, held up well in its first season without “Monday Night Football” and will edge out CBS as the No. 2 net in 18-49 if sports are tossed out of the mix. It’s also the only net that will finish up vs. a year ago in the May sweep.

But NBC remained in the basement for a third straight season, even after bringing “Sunday Night Football” into the fold and fielding the season’s top new show in “Heroes.” Despite the lift those programs gave the Peacock in the fall, net tumbled in winter and spring to finish well behind the pack.

Meanwhile, one-plus-one pretty much just equaled one after the corporate parents of UPN and the WB merged their weblets to form the CW. It improved by a tick over the former nets in various categories but still finished behind Spanish-language net Univision.

And MyNetwork turned out to be nobody’s network as the ad-hoc jumble of Fox-owned former UPN affils and other orphaned stations barely registered on the Nielsen radar with its telenovela lineup before switching to a sked that also included movies and one-off tabloid specials. Didn’t matter: Ratings remained miniscule, with the net finishing with less than one-fourth the delivery of CW.

The major broadcast nets saw their combined delivery of adults 18-49 decline by a modest 5% year to year (14.3 rating vs. 15.1) while ad-supported cable as a group grew by 3% (15.9 vs. 15.5).

But the broadcast networks finished meekly, as virtually every show — Fox’s “House” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” were the notable exceptions — experienced alarming year-to-year falloffs beginning around when early daylight saving time started in March.

Explanations offered up by the nets include an admission that there are too many repeats following the February sweep, which allows auds to lose that viewing habit.

Another is that with DVR usage approaching 20% of U.S. homes, auds are opting to watch shows on their own timetable — which means their viewing isn’t included in the same-day numbers that Nielsen produces on a next-day basis.

Looking at the final season results (which don’t figure to budge with the final three nights to be counted), Fox led with a 4.0 rating/11 share in adults 18-49 (even in rating vs. a year ago), followed by CBS (3.7/10, down 3%), ABC (3.5/9, down 13% from last year, when it aired the Super Bowl and college football title game), NBC (3.1/8, down 6%), Univision (1.7/5) and CW (1.3/4).

In adults 25-54, CBS (4.7/12) held off Fox (4.3/11) and ABC (4.0/11), while the Eye led comfortably in total viewers (12.5 million to 10.4 million for runner-up ABC).

This season was the second straight that Fox won in 18-49 without help from the Super Bowl, as the net remained on top in nonsports averages. In this increasingly significant category, Fox will finish with a 3.9 or 4.0 rating, followed by ABC (projected 3.5 or 3.6), CBS (projected 3.4 or 3.5) and NBC (2.9).

For top-rated Fox, “American Idol” and “House” did most of the damage, with the music competition’s Tuesday and Wednesday editions neck and neck to claim the season’s top two spots in 18-49. Regardless of which finishes on top, “Idol” will become the first program in at least two decades to rank No. 1 in 18-49 for a fourth straight year.

After a hot start, “Idol” cooled as the season progressed, but combined, the two nights were down just slightly vs. its record-setting pace of a year ago.

“House” had another vital season with an average 8.1 rating in 18-49, tying with ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” as the season’s No. 3 program — and top scripted draw — in the demo. (“House” benefited by airing virtually no repeats in its regular timeslot, finishing the season up 23% vs. last year).

Fox also found a solid Thursday anchor in midseason quizzer “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?,” and soph dramas “Prison Break” and “Bones” put up solid numbers.

CBS remained sturdy even though tentpoles like “CSI,” “Survivor” and “CSI: Miami” began to show their age. Still, “Survivor” and “Miami” controlled their timeslots, and “CSI” remained a top 10 show in key demos despite facing ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and suffering a 20% season-to-season hit in its 18-49 score.

The Eye added a pair of moderate successes in drama “Shark” and midseason comedy “Rules of Engagement” and also saw a couple of its sophomore shows, “Criminal Minds” and “Ghost Whisperer,” defy the gravitational pull to post year-to-year increases.

And in total viewers, CBS could claim victory on five of seven nights (losing only to Fox on the “Idol” nights of Tuesday and Wednesday).

ABC’s season was highlighted by the successful shift of “Grey’s Anatomy” from Sunday to Thursday, where it teamed with rookie hit “Ugly Betty.” Net edged out CBS to take the lucrative night in 18-49, rising 89% vs. its year-ago average.

On Sunday, though “Desperate Housewives” declined by about 25% vs. last year, it still comfortably led its slot in demos and helped provide a nice lead-in for one of the season’s other few rookie winners, “Brothers & Sisters.”

Overall, ABC was also the most upscale-skewing of all broadcasters, a title NBC had owned for years prior to its recent downturn.

NBC’s best news came from rookie drama “Heroes,” which follows in the footsteps of last year’s “My Name Is Earl” to give the Peacock the top-rated new scripted program in 18-49 for a second straight season. Thursday laffer “The Office” alsowas on the rise, but vets like the “Law & Order” franchise and “ER” continued to decline.

CW was paced by “America’s Next Top Model,” which won its timeslot in younger demos most weeks. Net also did well with a pair of other nonscripted series, “Beauty and the Geek” and the rookie “Pussycat Dolls Present.”

On the scripted side, “Gilmore Girls,” “One Tree Hill” and “Smallville” tied as the net’s top show in its target 18-34 demo. While “Gilmore” steps down, the other two will return next fall.

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