Television's top-rated show is "Cheers," an 8-year-old NBC sitcom that has never been first before.
Why have so many new viewers finally discovered the series?
They haven't. Viewers just stopped watching other shows.
"Cheers" is No. 1 this year with an average 20.9 rating (percent of the nation's 93.1 million TV homes). Last year, at a 22.9, it ranked third. In 1985-86, at a 19.7, close to this year, it ranked 12th.
Blame the ever-increasing fractionalization of the audience among increased viewing options.
ABC, CBS and NBC averaged a 65 percent share of the prime-time audience for the season's first four weeks, when interest is highest because of curiosity about new shows and contests drive up viewing.
Last year, their share four weeks in was 71 percent, dropping to 66 percent for the full season.
Week one, the competition was "The Civil War," which set a PBS ratings record and stole 10 percent of the networks' audience. But PBS' ratings fell off after the first week, and the networks didn't rebound.
The blame lies with Fox, and with basic cable channels, which "in the aggregate are up significantly over a year ago," said Betsy Frank, senior vice president for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising.
While the networks are off 4 percent this season, she said, basic cable is up 28 percent, on the strength of original programming, heavy promotion and increased CNN viewing because of the Gulf crisis.
David Poltrack, CBS senior vice president of research, argues the decline isn't quite as drastic as it seems, and when the year is over, "the decline will be far less significant than we've seen in the first few weeks."
Much of the networks' decline is on Sundays, he said, when TNT is airing NFL games and the Fox lineup is strong.
The three-network share on that night is now at 60 percent, down from 72 percent last year. But last year, cable's football package started in November, so by November, year-to-year comparisons won't be quite so steep, he said.
Still, the decline has meant the networks have lowered their standards for a successful show.
"I think everyone now looks for a 20 share as the number you don't want to go below," said Poltrack. "But there are some [times of the day] where an 18 looks good." Just two years ago, he said, shows needed a 25 share to succeed, and a 22-23 was borderline.
But as the threshold goes lower, Poltrack said, there's a "chicken-and-egg" effect, because the networks abandon trying to satisfy mass audiences and "focus on salable demographics, targeting shows more specifically," causing the "general attractiveness of shows to shrink more."
Thus, he said, some of the smaller audiences are "by design," such as ABC's Saturday lineup of "China Beach" and "Twin Peaks," which ABC knows won't appeal to a large audience, but will get the young, affluent viewers advertisers want.
Some in the industry question whether cable's gains can be sustained. WTBS and TNT, the two Turner networks that account for a significant amount of growth, have canceled several original programs because of budget problems.
But John Barbera, president of Turner Broadcasting Sales, said, "The No. 1 show on TBS (a 3.5 rating) is still Andy Griffith at 7 p.m. weekdays. A lot of original movies, like this week's 'Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,' get good numbers (3.2), but on the other side, 'Orpheus Descending' did a 1.8. Tried-and-true movies such as the John Wayne pictures this week (which took the place of the canceled 'Voice of the Planet') do every bit as well as the originals."