Network TV lost substantial viewers this fall.
Ratings eroded due to increased cable competition and a series of financial and programming mistakes that have trapped networks in a vortex of fading overpriced hits, look-alike new shows and a growing dependency on cheaper reality-based programs.
Local affiliate programmers, however, are refusing to raise a white flag in the latest ratings war.
"Numbers go up and down, and network ratings are rather cyclical," said Pat Patton, program director for KMBC, Kansas City's ABC affiliate.
"CBS has edged up, which is fine for us," said John Rose, general manager and vice president of KCTV, a CBS affiliate in Kansas City. "It generally takes a show a little longer for viewers to find. It takes awhile ... to get established."
Although the networks are far from closing up shop, programmers are concerned that the era when viewers could depend on a single network for an evening of quality entertainment is ending.
"The (ratings) numbers and viewer defection are a concern for all of us," Patton said.
Loud and clear message
The ratings are telling a story that NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and UPN would rather not hear.
Viewership this season is down a phenomenal 6 percent over last year, and no network can boast of a single breakout new show.
NBC took the hardest hit with an estimated 16 percent Thursday evening decline. CBS actually won the coveted November sweeps period, though it was a hollow victory, with CBS viewer totals down 10 percent from the previous November.
Along with increased cable competition, the networks can blame themselves for relying too long on established programs while failing to create new hit shows.
FOX saw its new Friday comedy schedule -- "Costello," "Getting Personal" and "Living in Captivity" -- wiped off the ratings map, and its World Series broadcast was the lowest rated ever, down 14 percent from the previous low-rated 1989 series.
With only 15 hours of original prime-time programs, FOX is leaning heavily on aging shows, such as the "X-Files," "Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills 90210" and "The Simpsons," to prop up ratings.
NBC has the bloodiest nose this season, with prime-time viewership down 11 percent. Though "Frasier" is up ratingswise from its Tuesday spot, it has lost 25 percent of the audience "Seinfeld" had. "Third Rock From the Sun" and "Mad About You" are shadows of their former selves, leaving only "ER" and the resurgent "Friends" as stabilizing forces.
Tellingly, NBC has not had a certifiable hit since those two shows debuted in 1994. Programs that initially drew big numbers -- "The Single Guy," "Union Square" and "Boston Common" -- quickly lost ratings once they were pulled out of the Thursday night lineup.
NBC's "Jesse" is in the top 10, but industry insiders view it the same as "The Single Guy" -- a hit show no one is really watching.
"It's difficult to get to No. 1 and stay there," Patton said. "You get hits and then they grow old and tired."
Throwing money away
Networks do not have unlimited budgets and resources. Poor financial decisions and "sweetheart" production deals siphon off valuable funds.
CBS is paying the NFL more than $400 million for broadcasting rights this season, and has asked its affiliates to "pony up" $40 million to defray the cost.
"Did they ask us? Yes," Rose said. "Did we want to? No. But at an affiliate meeting we did all agree to it."
At least CBS has some games to air. Over at NBC, the network is literally paying for nothing. This year's deal with the NBA will cost NBC a cool $350 million regardless of whether or not the players set foot on the court. NBC appears likely to lose that money, along with untold millions in lost ad revenues.
Lack of funds has forced the networks to slash budgets and fire staff, and it has hindered the development of new shows and talent. To ensure their survival, they are signing more "sweetheart" deals, paying production companies with good track records millions for established hits, and millions more to develop new shows.
NBC is paying Warner Bros. a staggering $13 million per episode for "ER," and in the process NBC must also pick up new programs from Warner Bros., like this year's tepid "Trinity."
That's nothing compared to the decision NBC made to keep "Mad About You" on the air. Series stars Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser are each collecting $1 million per episode -- $44 million for the season -- and the show is foundering in the ratings.
Reality programs to the rescue
Less income means the networks are looking for quick fixes to spike ratings and temporarily hold on to viewers.
NBC runs five nights of "Dateline," which recently added a "survivors story" segment. ABC aired such fare as "I Survived a Disaster" and "The World's Most Dangerous Volcanoes!" and even CBS willingly sullied its venerable "60 Minutes" by airing the notorious Dr. Jack Kevorkian mercy killing video. FOX extensively programs video junk food like "World's Scariest Police Chases" and "Busted on the Job."
The reality of "reality" shows is that they cost networks almost nothing and usually garner strong ratings.
"They are economically driven, and they appeal to a certain audience," Rose said.
Program success stories
While the networks falter, cable programmers are certainly happy. The USA network is enjoying a ratings boom from WWF wrestling and its weekend schedule. "Pacific Blue," a show about cops on bicycles, is up a whopping 57 percent over last season.
Lifetime is reaping rewards with its "female" drama, "Any Day Now," and VH1 is shaking things up in music television.
The WB network has increased its ratings with youth-driven fare such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek" and "Charmed."
Still, the established networks also can each point to a silver lining.
CBS has "Touched by an Angel" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." ABC boasts about "The Drew Carey Show," "Spin City" and "The Practice," which is up 37 percent and picked up an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama.
FOX has everyone's favorite miniskirt-flaunting lawyer, "Ally McBeal," which is up 47 percent, and even the NBC peacock can crow that its Thursday lineup usually scores in the top 10.
What it all means
It's safe to say the networks are here to stay, but with more competition from cable and even the Internet, they will exhibit less dominance and create fewer hits. But the affiliates are not worried. Yet.
"Our universe is different from the cable universe. We have access, theoretically, to 100 percent of all TVs," Patton said. "It would take a lot of cable networks thrown together to make up what a network can provide each night. And advertisers are aware of that."
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