One season may not end a trend, but after 15 years of steady erosion in their share of the prime-time audience, the three big broadcast networks finally have some evidence that they may not be in a permanent plunge.
For the first time since the 1976-77 season, the three networks have ended a television season with a larger share of the audience than they had the year before.
The three networks, which finished the 1990-91 season with a combined share of 62 percent of the audience, finished the 1991-92 season with a combined 63 share.
That upward movement is indeed modest, especially when put in the context of where the overall trend has gone.
The last time the networks improved their hold on the audience, 15 years ago, their audience share climbed from a 92 to a 93.
But after becoming so estranged from even the word improvement, network executives now have some cause for feeling at least relieved, if not for celebrating.
The results for cable television also reflected a change in recent trends. For the first time since the 1979-80 season, when cable networks began to be measured for overall viewing, cable's share of the audience did not increase, but held even at an 18 share.
The performance of over-the-air channels vs. cable channels is more impressive when the Fox Broadcasting Co., which boomed this season, is included. Fox alone improved three share points.
An an explanation, some cable executives are pointing to the extraordinary events that played on the networks -- especially CBS, which accounted for virtually all the increased audiences for the networks.
"Comparisons to 1991 are not reasonable because of the Olympics on CBS and the fact that CNN's war coverage pushed up cable's numbers last year," said Thom McKinney, the president of the Cable Advertising Bureau.
It was indeed an exceptional year for viewing events on the networks: ratings were up for the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball final and the Academy Awards.
Then there was added boost of the Winter Olympics, which attracted a larger audience than four years ago.
But network executives emphasize that viewing was also up -- though just barely -- for regularly scheduled programs.
More specifically, they say the networks produced all of television's excitement this season.
"All the action this season was on the networks," said David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of research for CBS. "What were people talking about this year? The sports on CBS; 'Home Improvement' as the best new series on ABC; the growth of Fox; the Monday night shows on CBS. Five years ago, all the action was on cable."
Still, Mr. Poltrack expressed the wide network concern that cable continued to carry considerable cachet with advertisers.
The view may be changing -- at least for some advertising executives. Jon Mandel, the senior vice president of Grey Advertising, whose agency buys more than $100 million a year in advertising on cable networks, said the playing field between the networks and cable was leveling off, because cable had virtually stopped expanding.
Indeed, almost every community in the country is wired for cable.
"What this season shows is that he who puts the good programs on gets the audience," Mr. Mandel said. "One of the things that cracks me up about cable is that they talk about all this original programming, and then what do they produce?
"For a time, there was a chic quotient to cable," he said. "But like anything else it matures. It's not as appealing. Not to say it's ugly, but it's not the hottest thing that walked down the street anymore."
He suggested that the cable networks would have to begin investing more in original programs. "God didn't come down and say because you are on cable you will have a higher success rate," he said.
As for the networks' performance this season, Mr. Mandel said: "In a way it's like playing golf. Every once in a while you hit a great shot and you think you really do know how to play this game."
But at least some of the network excitement over this year's upswing is tempered by the fact that the cost of the improvement was so high. CBS lost money on most of the sports events that attracted so many viewers this year. And all three networks have indicated reluctance to go on spending heavily for the big events.
That would be a mistake, Mr. Mandel said. "Why do they call it an investment?" he said. "You have to take big risks to have big payoffs. One of the concerns I have is when I hear NBC Sports executives saying they won't buy anything unless it's risk-free. Are they planning to go out of business?"
Despite the change from recent seasons, nobody detects a true trend in this season's results. "But it was important because network morale was beaten down," Mr. Mandel said. "They thought they were near the end of the world. It isn't the end of the world. It's like the golf analogy. You just have to go back and practice some more."
Mr. Poltrack said there was no trend to be found in the increased network audiences because the three networks were going in different directions, seeking entirely separate identities.
"You can't talk about a three-network trend anymore," he said.