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Early in the Game, But Broadcast Nets Are Throwing a No-Hitter

10/05/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Viewers seem to have given a big thumbs down to the new fall season. Only ABC, which was down pretty low to start with, has shown a bump upwards in the Nielsen department.

Cable, with signature shows like Monk, Nip/Tuck
and Trading Spaces, continues to gain share at broadcast's expense. Through the first full week of the season, ad-supported cable's prime time audience spurted four share points to 48% of total viewership. The Big Four broadcast networks dropped two share points to just 44% of prime time viewing, and the six dropped from a 51 to a 49 share, according to Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming for ad agency Carat.

The networks haven't helped their cause any, she says, by confusing audiences. "So many shows have shifted time periods. You look at Friday night: 73% of that schedule is comprised of new shows or shows that shifted time periods. It's unbelievable how volatile the network schedule is."

Another factor could be depressing network ratings, she adds. This season, for the first time ever, Nielsen is weighting the ratings in an effort to make sure its national sample more accurately reflects the makeup of the viewing audience.

Through the first 10 days of the new season, ABC is up in households, viewers, and adults 18-49 and 25-54. It has knocked CBS out of second place among adults 18-49 and closed the gap significantly in 25-54.

Still, questions remain about ABC's ability to maintain its momentum, a good portion of which is attributable to 8 Simple Rules, which this week will air the last episode to feature its star, the late John Ritter.

"He was really the core of that show," one program analyst says. "I just don't see how they can maintain it long term without him."

But ABC got a nice bump on Friday, thanks largely to the new Hope & Faith, with Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford. Observers say the early returns signal that ABC has a shot at reclaiming the younger audience it lost a few years back when it dumped its TGIF lineup.

Meanwhile, demo leader NBC is struggling to hang on to first place among adults 18-49. Brill expects NBC to find itself in "a very tight horse race with Fox" for 18-49s once the baseball playoffs end and American Idol returns.

And, if NBC's new Thursday comedy Coupling, which the network has pinned high hopes on, doesn't start to show improvement soon, "this could spell the end of Thursday-night supremacy for NBC," Brill says. Coupling debuted with less than stellar ratings two weeks ago and, last week, dropped 12% in household rating from its premiere and 10% in adults 18-49, according to Nielsen fast affiliate ratings. The show was almost three rating points behind CBS's CSI in the 18-49 demo (a 9.6 rating/24 share for CSI vs. a 7.0/17 for Coupling), although Coupling did have a slight lead among adults 18-34.

For the first full week of the season, CBS won viewers and households, while NBC won adults 18-49, 18-34 and 25-54. CBS points out that it was tops among adults 35-64.

Last Wednesday, CBS got a bump from King of Queens. In a new time period, it was up 53% in household rating from its premiere a year ago.

Meanwhile, both The WB and UPN are down pretty much across the key ratings categories. Average viewership at The WB is off 14% to an average 4.5 million viewers per night, while UPN is off 16% to an average 3.5 million viewers.

More alarming for both is the 18-34 fall-off. For the first 10 days of the season, The WB is down 29% in the demo to a 2.0/6 while UPN is down 16% to 1.6/5. Brill suggests that cable is probably a factor there. Third-quarter ratings for the cable universe shows it to be up 5% in the demo. Here too, she noted, Nielsen's weighting could also be a factor.

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