At TV's halfway mark, good news and bad Cable gains as networks lose ground

January 17, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Source: A. C. NielsenTelevision Critic

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles--It's the halfway point of the 1992-'93 TV season, and the news is not very good for the networks or their viewers.

The audience erosion goes on. The three-network audience share, continuing its pattern of a decade in decline, is down another 4 percent from last year at this time.

Meanwhile, viewership for basic cable (such channels as ESPN, CNN, TNT, MTV and Comedy Central) is up 8 percent over last year, according to A. C. Nielsen figures.

There is a world of reasons for those numbers, many of them relating to such realities of the new TV universe as the growing number of cable channels and VCR technology. But network executives acknowledge that their programming failures are also contributing to their declining fortunes.

"We found that when networks fail to provide audiences with programs they are interested in, basic cable winds up being the beneficiary," said Alan Wurtzel, senior vice president for

marketing and research at ABC.

Wurtzel cited the networks' collective programming failures on Saturday night and large declines in NBC's audience for Thursday nights without Bill Cosby as two reasons for the loss of audience this year.

But another reason -- the one cited most often by viewers -- is the lack of continuity in program schedules.

One-third of the 90 or so regular series that started the year have already been canceled, sent into the never-never land of "hiatus," or moved around the schedules -- making it harder for viewers to find their favorite shows.

NBC's "Out All Night," for example, started out as a Saturday night show, was moved to Thursday and is now headed for Fridays. The next step on that slippery slope is "hiatus," followed by cancellation.

Last month, CBS decided it wanted to see if "Picket Fences" could do better on a night other than Friday. So, in Baltimore and a few other cities, "Picket Fences" and "Knots Landing" swapped places for a couple of weeks. The result was major confusion for viewers of "Knots Landing," one of the highest-rated dramas on television, now in its last season.

This halfway point in the 30-week TV season is the time of the year when prime-time viewing gets more complicated and frustrating than ever. The networks rearrange their schedules, adding new shows and shelving others -- testing some pilots for possible inclusion next fall and burning off episodes of shows they have privately decided won't be back. And in less than two weeks, all that is further complicated by the event programming of February "sweeps," which pre-empts all but the most ratings-mighty of the regular series.

What follows is a mid-year report card on each of the four broadcast networks, which should offer some relief in dealing with the increasingly complicated process of simply trying to watch television.

ABC

ABC gets the only A so far this year.

Analysis: While CBS is the network getting the good press because it's No. 1 in the overall ratings race, ABC is the only network showing audience growth, especially among adults 18 to 49 years old, the key demographic for advertisers.

Last year CBS won the ratings race but lost money, while ABC finished third and made $110 million, according to filings with the Security and Exchange Commission. Look for the same this year when the dollars are all counted.

Overall, the reasons for ABC's success include a commitment to that 18-to-49-year-old audience and a philosophy of trying to provide as much continuity in its schedule as possible.

Among the specific reasons for success this year are gangbusters numbers for "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement," as well as an increasingly strong performances by the newsmagazines "Prime Time Live" and "20/20."

Greatest strengths: ABC owns Tuesday nights and has a news division that's good enough to win both prestige and ratings for the network.

Canceled: "Laurie Hill" and "Crossroads." "Homefront" and "Going to Extremes" are on hiatus.

What to look for: Less change in regular series than on the other networks. Coming specials include: Susan Lucci in "Between Love and Hate," a TV movie and a Billy Ray Cyrus music special, both in February; "Family Pictures," a miniseries with Anjelica Huston, in March; "Stephen King's Tommyknockers" in May; and "Wild Palms," a miniseries produced by Oliver Stone, in April. ABC News will premiere "Day One," a newsmagazine, in March.

CBS

CBS gets a B.

Analysis: CBS is the No. 1 network in overall viewing, but its audience is down 2 percent from last year, with a 6 percent loss in young adults. It will win the ratings battle this year, but lose the money war to ABC.

The good news is that CBS entertainment president Jeff Sagansky is a great programmer with a real talent for developing new shows. As a result, CBS, too, will provide some lineup continuity.

Greatest strength: CBS owns Monday nights. On Sundays, "60 Minutes" and "Murder, She Wrote" just keep rollin' along.

Canceled: "Angel Street" and "2000 Malibu Road."

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