Another Lean Season CBS ends year on top

THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF

young viewers continue to rebuff NBC overtures

April 19, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The 1992-'93 TV season officially ended at midnight last night, and it must feel like it's morning in America again for CBS stockholders.

Not only did CBS win the prime-time ratings race by going against the grain of youth-oriented and niche programming, but it made money doing so. Last season, CBS won the ratings race, but lost millions in the process.

But while CBS's fortunes have rebounded, the larger picture for network TV has worsened. The combined audience for CBS, NBC and ABC hit an all-time low -- a 60 percent share, down from 63 percent last year.

CBS officials declined to comment on the ratings and the network's renewed profitability until a press conference scheduled for tomorrow that will feature company chairman Laurence Tisch officially popping the champagne cork.

But, according to documents filed last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission, CBS made $162.5 million in 1992 compared with a loss of $98.7 million in 1991. (Public filings are made on a calendar year and quarterly basis.)

A. C. Nielsen's numbers, which will be released tomorrow, show CBS with a 13.4 rating and 22 percent share of the prime-time audience for the 1992-'93 season, ABC with a 12.5 rating and 20 percent share, NBC with an 11 rating and 18 share, and Fox with a 7.8 rating and 12 share. (Each ratings point represents 931,000 TV households; shares are the percentage of sets in use.)

Besides CBS's victory, the numbers show a strong performance for ABC, a disappointing year for Fox and an awful season for NBC, which plummeted from a strong first just two years ago.

But it's the overall network decline that demands analysis. Network executives had optimistically predicted at the start of the season that network audience erosion had abated after more than a decade of decline. The year-end figures from Nielsen clearly show that is not the case.

"I don't think anyone knows where it's going to level off," Don Ohlmeyer, the new executive president of NBC Entertainment, said in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine last week. It is the first such admission from any senior network official.

And, while advertising picked up slightly because of the Olympics and political advertising, it's easy to see why network audiences declined. In addition to more channels of competition, it was simply a terrible year for network programming.

The most successful forms of new programming this season were true-crime, made-for-TV movies, such as the Amy Fisher movies, and prime-time news magazines, such as "Dateline NBC."

There was only one bona fide new hit series on any network, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" with Jane Seymour, on CBS. Fox Broadcasting's "Martin," with comedian Martin Lawrence, could be considered a hit in that it makes money for the network by delivering a young audience. But, unlike "Dr. Quinn," which is in the Top 20 overall, "Martin" is ranked 80th with all viewers.

More than 30 new network series failed to interest viewers and were canceled. Some examples include: ABC's "Going to Extremes," from the producers of "Northern Exposure"; CBS's "Angel Street," from one of the producers of "China Beach"; and NBC's "Round Table," from Aaron Spelling, who set a record for canceled shows this season with three.

The failure of so many of the twentysomething shows is one of the most significant stories of the TV year. But it is also one of the most misunderstood.

The conventional wisdom is that all youth-oriented programming bombed this year. But that is not the case. ABC, which has consistentlysought a young audience, did very well with its strategy of seeking 18- to 49-year-old viewers with such shows as "Hanging With Mr. Copper." ABC moved from third to second overall, was the only network to hold its share of the audience from last year, and, again, made money.

There are two factors, though, involved in the perception that youth programming was a total bust. The first is that Fox, the favored network of teens and twentysomethings, slipped this season after several years of great growth.

While Fox made money because it gets young viewers, it attracted fewer of them this year than last. And its expansion to Tuesday nights is troubled, with "Class of '96" and "Tribeca" finishing last in the ratings week after week.

And then, there's NBC, which this season tried to go from the kind of broad-appeal programming that CBS does, to programs aimed at a young audience. Its failure to reach that audience was spectacular.

In fact, it was so spectacular that CBS blames the networks' combined loss of three more audience shares on NBC.

"This decline in network viewers was substantial," CBS management said in its statement to shareholders earlier this year, "and it was due largely to the implementation of a competitor's programming strategy: the pursuit of young viewers opposed to total audience."

There is no doubt that NBC is a network in disarray.

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