Miércoles 31 de Octubre de 2007, Ip nº 214

Turning off the TV set
Por Paul R. La Monica

Good news for ABC and NBC. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research, the Disney (DIS)-owned network, which finished in third place with total viewers and among 18-49 year-olds last season, ranks first with the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic and second overall through the first three weeks of the season. CBS (CBS) is tops with all viewers.

And GEfs (GE) NBC, which has been stuck in fourth place with total viewers and 18-49 year-olds for the past three seasons, is in second place with 18-49 year-olds, a hair above CBS.

But before any of these networks - or investors in their parent companies - start popping champagne corks, therefs this little sobering fact to consider. The number of viewers, overall and with the ad-friendly 18-49 crowd, have declined sharply for each of these three networks. Oops.

According to the most recent figures, ABC has averaged 11.4 million prime-time viewers so far, down from 11.9 million a year ago. With 18-49 year-olds, ABC averaged an audience of about 5 million people, down from 5.5 million a year ago.

CBS has averaged 12.1 million overall viewers and 4.6 million 18-49 year-olds this season, down from 13.2 million total viewers and 5.3 million 18-49 year-olds a year ago. And NBC, despite moving up in the ranks, is also still losing audience. The Peacock Network averaged 9.3 million viewers, off from 10.6 million a year ago. NBC averaged 4.7 million 18-49 year olds, down from 5.1 million a year ago.

gAnytime you are not maintaining audience it has to be troubling. Nobody is happy to see fewer people watching broadcast television,h said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming with Katz Television Group, a consultant and media buying firm based in New York.

Interestingly, even though Fox is in fourth place overall and with 18-49 year-olds, the News Corp. (NWS)-owned network might actually have the most to be encouraged about. Fox typically starts slowly since many of its biggest hits, including gAmerican Idolh and g24 donft launch until January. Foxfs prime-time lineup also gets disrupted in October as the network is forced to shelve some regularly scheduled shows for playoff baseball, which actually has been a bit of a ratings drag in recent years.

This fall though, Fox is the only major network to see viewership among 18-49 year olds increase during the first three weeks of the season, an encouraging sign. Fox averaged 3.7 million viewers in that demographic, up from 3.6 million a year ago. Fox also was the only network to post a gain in 18-34 year-old viewers, with 1.9 millon viewers in this age group, up from 1.7 million a year ago.

That has to be considered a blow to the CW, the network co-owned by CBS and my parent company Time Warner (TWX). The CW targets many of its shows to this ultra-young demographic and it has averaged just 890,000 18-34 year-olds a night thus far, down from 1.1 million a year ago.

Overall, however, Fox was not immune to the broader trend of people turning off the boob tube. Itfs total audience has shrunk from 7.7 million people a night last year to about 7.4 million in the first three weeks of this season.

These ratings figures do include a mix of live viewing and time-shifted data, i.e. people who watch shows using TiVo (TIVO) or other digital video recorders. They do not factor in the widely publicized commercial ratings - which measure viewership of advertisements during specific shows - that Nielsen just introduced for this season.

Nielsen released results for the first week of the fall season using these new numbers - dubbed C3 ratings since they look at commercial ratings for live viewings plus airings on DVRs within three days of its original broadcast date - on Tuesday and they confirmed the general trend. Fewer people are watching TV overallcat least on their TV sets.

There is something to be said for the fact that more and more people are watching shows on the Web sites of the networks or through places like Applefs (AAPL) iTunes. So itfs probably unfair to say that mainstream TV programs are losing cachet. To that end, Katzf Carroll pointed out that the biggest hits on television, shows like ABCfs gDancing with the Starsh and gGreyfs Anatomy,h CBSf gCSIhand gCSI: Miamih and Foxfs gHouseh all routinely average more than 15 million viewers a week.

gAre the networks the only place to go for advertisers anymore? Of course not. But do they still play an important and pivotal role for advertisers? Yes,h Carroll said.

Still, places like Googlefs (GOOG) YouTube and other online video sites are also a serious threat. Younger viewers in particular seem more drawn to original Internet programs like gLonelygirl15 and gProm Queenh not to mention humorous, short user-generated videos. Itfs pretty easy to waste a half hour or so that could be spent watching g30 Rockh by watching stuff on Dailymotion or FunnyorDie.com instead.

Itfs also worth pointing out that the networks are having a more difficult time creating new blockbusters, another troublesome sign.

Through the first three weeks, gGreyfs Anatomyh spin-off gPrivate Practiceh is the one standout, averaging about 13.4 million viewers a week. ABCfs gPushing Daisiesh and gDirty Sexy Moneyh have been modest hits, as has NBCfs gBionic Woman.h But no new show looks set to emerge as one that can challenge the top rated programs week in and week out for years to come.

And it may get worse before it gets better. Shari Anne Brill, vice president of programming with Carat USA, another media buying firm, said that the networks are cutting back on many new scripted shows since they are more expensive than reality programming.

But Brill thinks this trend may in fact be contributing to the lower ratings, since she thinks only a handful of reality shows can attract sizable audiences.

gWhatfs very telling is that the declines coincide with the proliferation of reality shows on prime-time. With the exception of eAmerican Idol,f eSurvivorf and eDancing with the Starsf, reality does not really bring viewers,h she said. gItfs a huge dilemma. Only through quality scripted shows can you get viewers to come back week after week.h

And with the threat of a writersf strike looming over Hollywood, the networks may be forced to program even more reality shows in their lineup next season.

So while the broadcasters all try and put their best spin on things, investors might want to ignore the hype from them about their new ghitsh and weekly rankings triumphs. Sure, itfs nice to have bragging rights. Someone has to come in first, after all. But if youfre simply standing at the top of a boat thatfs sinking, it might not be worth crowing too loudly.

  17/10/2007. CNN.