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Cable claims Big 4 losses without rival

CAB numbers say homes watching less net TV

NEW YORK — The research arm of the cable industry says the Big Four broadcast networks are losing primetime viewers even among households that don’t subscribe to cable.

Using Nielsen numbers, the CAB (Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau) says that both affiliated and owned TV stations of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC combined lost a total of 878,000 primetime homes within non-cable households in the first quarter of 1999 compared with the same period a year ago. That’s a decline of 9% (from 9.24 million to 8.37 million), which translates into a falloff of 2.7 primetime rating points (from a 41.6 rating to a 38.8 rating — a 6.5% plunge).

“People have become so disenchanted with the unattractive programming on the broadcast networks that they’re tuning out even when they don’t have the choice of switching to cable,” said Joe Ostrow, president and CEO of the CAB.

Stats dubbed ‘meaningless’

But, on non-cable households, the broadcast networks are not about to accept Ostrow’s conclusion.

“The CAB is putting out another meaningless set of statistics,” says Dave Poltrack, executive VP of research and planning for CBS. The first quarter of 1998, he continues, got “a significant impact” in primetime from CBS’ coverage of the ’98 Winter Olympics, which is one reason why the ratings in this year’s first quarter are down by comparison.

Poltrack says the Big Four are “also facing far tougher competition” than they did a few years ago from newer rivals such as the WB, UPN and Pax TV, as well as from independent TV stations and PBS outlets.

But the CAB figures show that in the first-quarter-to-first-quarter comparison, the combination of WB, UPN, Pax TV and indies actually fell slightly in primetime viewership, from an average of 2,497,000 in 1998 to 2,456,000 in 1999. Similarly, PBS stations also dipped, from 781,000 last year to 657,000 in 1999.