Viewers take break from TV

September 01, 2005|By Scott Collins | Scott Collins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Movie studios wondering where filmgoers went this summer can rest assured of one thing: For the most part, those missing Americans weren't glued to the broadcast networks.

With the notable exception of ABC's Dancing With the Stars - by far the summer's biggest new hit, with an average of 16.8 million viewers - the six major broadcast networks have slogged through a disappointing summer, with household viewing down about 6 percent compared with the same period last year. Among the advertiser-friendly demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, the slide was even worse, off 10 percent according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

A number of heavily promoted reality series tanked, including CBS' Rock Star: INXS and NBC's I Want to Be a Hilton and David E. Kelley's first venture into reality TV, The Law Firm, which moved to Bravo after two low-rated episodes.

But scripted series failed to deliver as well. ABC watched its Roman epic Empire decline and fall. And viewers showed little interest in repeats of hits like Desperate Housewives or Lost.

The network losses were good news for basic cable, which increased its share of the prime-time audience to a record high of 61 percent, up four percentage points from last year. (Broadcast share slipped four points, to an all-time low of 32 percent; the remaining share consisted of pay cable networks and independent broadcasters.)

As in recent years, basic cable took advantage of broadcasters' summertime slowdown and unleashed a blitz of original scripted series. TNT's crime drama The Closer was a sleeper hit, averaging 5.3 million viewers - an impressive number for ad-supported cable - and the network also drew strong numbers with its series Wanted and the miniseries Into the West. FX's Iraq drama Over There started out powerfully, although it dropped in subsequent airings.

"The fall is the time when broadcast comes out with new scripted stuff, but summertime is when cable does it," said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting, which includes TNT.

Spanish-language network Univision, meanwhile, dominated the rapidly growing young Hispanic audience with the telenovelas La Madrastra and Apuesta Por Un Amor. Univision, in fact, was probably the summer's greatest success story; the Spanish-language network is up 23 percent among adults 18 to 49 compared with last summer.

Univision was the fifth-most-watched TV network this summer, with 3.5 million average viewers. While not yet a threat to No. 1 CBS (7.4 million), the Spanish-language network has more prime-time viewers than TNT (2.9 million), UPN (2.6 million) and the WB Network (2 million).

The summer numbers raise doubts about broadcasters' oft-expressed hopes of grabbing momentum away from cable during the warmer months. During the past five years, network executives have increasingly eyed summer as a platform for new reality series; both CBS' Survivor and Fox's American Idol started as summer shows and became top performers during the regular season too. But the search for the next hot reality offering may have created a glut since May.

"It's not that the broadcasters struck out," said Steve Sternberg, executive vice president at New York-based ad firm Magna Global. "There was just so much reality that there were more flops than successes."

Agreed Preston Beckman, executive vice president of Fox Broadcasting Co.: "There were just a lot of mediocre - at best - reality shows" this summer.

Perhaps the most surprising fizzle was CBS' Rock Star: INXS, which was overseen by one of TV's most successful reality producers, Mark Burnett of Survivor and The Apprentice fame, and featured a rock group, INXS, that scored a number of hits during the 1980s.

Some commentators attributed Rock Star's low ratings to the decline in the popularity of rock music. American Idol, by contrast, features songs from a number of different genres, including rhythm and blues, pop and country. Overexposure may have also played a role: CBS eventually dumped the Monday airings of Rock Star, although Tuesday and Wednesday episodes were left intact.

"We realized that for a new show, three days a week is asking an awful lot of the audience," said Kelly Kahl, CBS' executive vice president of program planning and scheduling. But he added that even though Rock Star's ratings "were not as high as we'd like," the show still brought younger-than-usual viewers to CBS this summer.

There's even a chance the network may bring back Rock Star next summer, he said.

Rock Star didn't hurt CBS' overall performance too badly: The network is No. 1 in total viewers this summer, with an average of 7.4 million, and has a razor-thin lead over runner-up Fox in adults 18 to 49.

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