NEW YORK -- NBC won an increasingly tight contest in November between the three major broadcast networks for leadership in prime time. But it led ABC and CBS by just one-tenth of a ratings point, underscoring the inability of all three networks to stem audience attrition and develop new hit programs this season.
Total network viewership during the sweeps in November, one of four months when ratings are used to determine local advertising rates, was down 3 percent, to 63 percent from 66 percent last year, according to statistics gathered by the A.C. Nielsen Co. and distributed recently by ABC, CBS, and NBC. For the season that began on Sept. 17, the drop-off is even more dramatic, to 64 percent from 69 percent a year ago.
Network research executives attributed the decline to the expansion of the Fox Broadcasting Co.'s schedule, from two nights to five. David F. Poltrack, the CBS senior vice president for planning and research, also speculated that some viewers, particularly women over 65, were turning to cable networks like the Discovery Channel and TNT.
For the November sweep, NBC had an average prime-time rating of 13.0 and 22 percent of the audience. Each Nielsen rating point represents 931,000 homes with televisions. ABC was second, with a 12.9 average and 21 percent of the audience. CBS was third, with a 12.0 average and 20 percent of the audience. CBS had the same rating as a year ago. NBC had a 15.1 average rating last year, and ABC had a 13.0 average last year.
The numbers surprised no one in the industry, which has seen the erosion of the three-network audience for several years as Fox grew and cable and independent stations became more aggressive. But this season was preceded by a torrent of promotion for new programs, none of which have been strong enough to break a particular network out of the close race.
"The sweep was as competitive as everybody felt it would be," said Alan Wurtzel, the senior vice president for marketing and research services at Capital Cities/ABC. "We're all disappointed that nobody has had a breakout hit."
There was some solace in the figures for both ABC and CBS. The second-place showing by ABC reflected the strength of its movies and special programs, especially "The Barbara Walters Special" and "Stephen King's 'It,' " a two-part television movie. CBS' strategy over the last two seasons has been to try to attract younger viewers -- those most sought by advertisers -- even at the cost of older ones, and that network, Poltrack said, had lowered the median age of its prime-time audience to 44 1/2 years old, from almost 47 years old a year ago. NBC and ABC continued to have the most younger viewers.
But the three networks also had plenty to worry about. Many of the hit comedies that have given NBC dominance since the mid-1980s are declining; "The Cosby Show" audience is down 25 percent, in part because Fox scheduled "The Simpsons" in the same period on Thursday night.
ABC canceled "Cop Rock" and has seen its top comedy, "Roseanne," decline by 25 percent, partly, Wurtzel said, because of strong programming by CBS and partly because of public attitudes toward the show's contentious star, Roseanne Barr. CBS, which presented the baseball pennant races and World Series, was unable to capitalize substantially on the games by building its prime-time audience.