Reality veterans see ratings erode, however

Primetime’s top skeins suffered a more pronounced spring swoon than usual this year, but the television season that ends tonight produced a pretty good ratings story for the Big Four broadcasters — especially CBS.

The Eye made Fox sweat for its victory in 18-49 this season, finishing close behind while prevailing in adults 25-54 and winning by a big margin in total viewers. CBS and NBC were the nets on the rise this season, with Fox down compared to 2010-11 and ABC flat or off slightly in most categories.

The biggest trends this season were the rise of comedy and the decline in popularity for most reality vets, notably Fox’s “American Idol” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

From a big-picture standpoint, when full-week DVR playback viewing stats are included, the major networks combined to retain 99% of their year-ago audience in both adults 18-49 and total viewers. So while the ratings may not have always looked great the next morning, digital video recorders — now in 45% of homes nationally — continue to be a panacea for the networks.

As for bragging rights, Fox finishes on top in adults 18-49 for an eighth straight season, but a rising CBS held at second for a sixth straight year and had its most competitive finish yet, trailing by just two-tenths of a point. The Eye also won outright in its target demo of adults 25-54 for the first time in five years. CBS also logged its ninth total-viewers victory in 10 seasons, winning by the largest margin for any network in 23 years (nearly 3 million ahead of Fox).

NBC, benefiting from the Super Bowl and midseason hit “The Voice,” appears to have finished ahead of ABC for third place in 18-49, leading by one-tenth of a ratings point. The two nets tied a couple of years ago, but this would mark the first time since the 2003-04 season that the Peacock has bested one of its Big Four rivals.

NBC saw the biggest growth in 18-49 (9%), while CBS was up 3%. ABC will finish down 4% while Fox figures to come in down about 10%, although a good chunk of that can be attributed to its airing the Super Bowl a year ago.

(Final numbers, including the last two days of the season and then full-week DVR playback stats, won’t be available until June.)

The hottest show of the 2011-12 campaign was CBS’ Thursday anchor “The Big Bang Theory,” which finishes just a smidge behind ABC’s “Modern Family” as TV’s No. 1 scripted show in 18-49 and is tops among laffers in total viewers. The Eye’s other big returning comedies — “How I Met Your Mother,” “Two and a Half Men” (with new lead Ashton Kutcher) and “Mike and Molly” — also spiked, as did ABC’s “Modern Family” in its third year.

Overall, comedies accounted for six of the top 10 programs in 18-49. CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” is the season’s top-rated newcomer in 18-49, while Fox’s new half-hour “New Girl” finished as TV’s No. 2 scripted show overall in 18-34 (close behind “Modern Family”), and ABC’s “Suburgatory” had a solid rookie run.

The nets are certainly more confident about comedy these days, readying 28 half-hours for fall — up from 20 a year ago and 16 just two years ago.

As for reality shows, “The Voice” on NBC and “The X Factor” on Fox were nice additions to the lineups, helping the genre compensate for significant ratings tumbles for “American Idol” (down 30% in adults 18-49 from last season) and “Dancing With the Stars” (down 27%).

Also down by double digits were ABC’s “The Bachelor” and NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” CBS’ “Survivor” and “Amazing Race,” older than the rest of the current unscripted pack, continued their more gradual declines (each off 7%).

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” ended “American Idol’s” eight-season streak as the No. 1 program in 18-49, though “Idol” still stands as the No. 1 entertainment series. The Fox vet, whose finale is tonight, was tied through Sunday with NBC’s “The Voice” (whose average included its post-Super Bowl airing) as the No. 2-ranked program in the demo.

How crowded did the reality field get this season? The song-and-dance competition genre alone (six series) accounted for 226.5 hours of primetime real estate on the Big Four this season, more than double the volume of just three years ago, when “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” were the only offerings. Not surprisingly, both “Idol” and “Dancing” are wrapping their lowest-rated seasons in a year in which they also produced their most hours of programming (61.5 for “Dancing” and 58.5 for “Idol”).

Spanish-lingo broadcaster Univision also had an eventful season. It solidified its standing as the No. 5 broadcaster in all categories, beating CW in both adults 18-49 and 18-34 on every night they went head to head. It also beat NBC in 18-49 on more than half the nights (128 of 245).

Other positives for Univision include its young median age (36) and the fact that 94% of viewing for its programs is done live.

Here are some other notes for the Big Four and CW:

Fox

“Idol” may have lost a step this season, but it and newcomer “X Factor” made for a powerful seasonlong Wednesday-Thursday tandem for the net. Also helping was “New Girl,” which tied ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” as the No. 2 new scripted show in 18-49 and became the biggest DVR gainer among all rookies.

Biggest need for Fox is in the scripted hour department, as “House” has exited after eight seasons, “Glee” has faded, and rookie dramas “Alcatraz,” “Terra Nova,” “The Finder” and “Touch” all underwhelmed.

CBS

In a year when auds were looking for laughs, the Eye dominated in comedy with six of the top 10 half-hours in 18-49. And overall, CBS claimed more top 25 shows in both 18-49 (nine) and 25-54 (11) than any other network.

CBS introduced the season’s No. 1 new show in 18-49 (“2 Broke Girls”), while “Person of Interest” emerged as the No. 1 newbie in total viewers.

But perhaps the best news for the net was the performance of its returning shows. Along with the vet comedies, core dramas “NCIS,” “Hawaii Five-0″ and “Criminal Minds” all virtually matched their year-ago deliveries.

“NCIS” handily beat Fox’s “Glee” in 18-49 on Tuesdays, after the reverse was true just last season. It also will likely finish just a bit behind “American Idol” as the most-watched entertainment series — the third straight year that it’s led all other scripted shows in total viewers.

NBC

“The Voice” provided a much-needed boost and helped launch drama “Smash,” which did well enough to earn a sophomore season.

But NBC still needs more help. “The Office” was its No. 1 scripted series, but it finished outside the top 25 for the season and was down 15% year to year.

One plus for NBC was its overall younger skew, aided by an infusion of 18- to 34-year-olds for “The Voice.” NBC was the only Big Four net up in adults 18-34 and, as a result, finished the season second to Fox in the demo.

ABC

The net has TV’s top comedy (“Modern Family”) and drama (“Grey’s Anatomy”) in 18-49 but needs to fill in more of the blanks on its sked to compete with Fox and CBS.

Among new shows, Sunday rookie “Once Upon a Time” finished as the top rookie drama in 18-49 on any net in the past four seasons, while Wednesday series “Suburgatory” and “Revenge” were renewed after good first seasons. “Revenge” helped ABC stand as the only net to improve upon its 10 p.m. weekday perf of last year in 25-54 (the key demo for late local news).

A less heralded success was Friday’s “Shark Tank,” which spiked nicely from last year and was the night’s top show in 18-49 down the stretch.

And “Modern Family” again set DVR playback records, adding an average of 2.5 demo ratings points and 4.8 million viewers overall when comparing same-night to full-week numbers.

CW

It was a struggle for the netlet, with all five nights seeing declines.

Echoing the dropoffs for the Big Four reality vets, “America’s Next Top Model” was down sharply, and Friday suffered without “Smallville,” which wrapped a year ago.

Vet “Supernatural” is still doing well, and among new shows, “Hart of Dixie” showed some spark and will return to anchor CW’s Tuesday this fall.

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