Labor Day generally signals the beginning of the end for summer, and at the major television networks, the holiday couldn't have come soon enough.
Ratings for ABC, CBS and NBC have dropped sharply from their heyday: Television's "Big Three" have accounted for a meager 39% of the prime-time audience since the NBA basketball playoffs ended in June, after topping 60% during the same period a decade ago.
At the same time, aggregate viewing of basic cable channels continues to increase steadily, nearing parity with the three main broadcasters this summer. Cable officials project that the four networks (including Fox but not the fledgling UPN and WB networks) will be responsible for less than half of TV viewing before 2000.
Fox Entertainment Group President Peter Roth called erosion "the single biggest problem facing the networks" and said that his network plans to keep offering original programs during the summer in an effort to reverse (or at least slow) that trend. Fox enjoyed the highest viewership growth of any channel this summer, despite the fact that none of its new shows--among them the medieval series "Roar"--caught fire.
For their part, the older networks--seemingly taking a page from Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Newman with his motto, "What, Me Worry?"--insist that reports of their demise are exaggerated. As evidence, they cite factors that include strong advertising support for broadcasting and the fact that cable loads up on original summer programs precisely because those months find the networks at their most vulnerable.
Some executives also reject the assertion that they could have done more to keep the audience, maintaining that the declines they've experienced have more to do with new players crowded onto the field than with network programmers fumbling the ball.
David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president of research, noted that 20 years ago, "when viewers turned on the TV set, they had five choices, and the networks were three of them." At the time the three-network share of audience hovered around 90%.
Today, thanks to cable and satellite TV, the average home receives at least 45 channels. Still, on an average night during the last year, four of those channels--ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox--combined for nearly 60% of the audience.
"I call that 'resilience' as opposed to 'erosion,' " Poltrack said.
The real question is how long and how fast the networks will keep losing viewers. Beyond mere bragging rights, cable has a practical incentive to trumpet its rising share of the audience: Despite all those eyeballs watching cable, the major networks still command the lion's share of ad revenue.
In fact, although the advertising bought on basic cable channels rose 17% for the coming season, to about $2.1 billion, prime-time ratings leader NBC alone exceeded that total, selling a record $2.15 billion in ad time. The four networks amassed more than $6 billion, three times cable's support.
How can network sales remain so robust, with advertising dollars continuing to climb while ratings fall? Part of the explanation lies in U.S. population figures: Nielsen Media Research just revised the number of prospective viewers from 251.3 million last year to 254.1 million for the coming season; the figure has grown annually.
More significant, the major networks provide the only means of reaching vast numbers of viewers within a single program (10 series averaged a weekly audience of 20 million people or more last season). Although cable's ratings keep rising, that overall audience is divided among more than 100 cable channels, each of which draws lower ratings than all but the least-watched network shows.
Indeed, the irony is that fragmenting the audience has made the networks more appealing to national advertisers.
"The attraction of over-the-air broadcasting has always been its ability to reach a mass audience," said Ave Butensky, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising. "Only the over-the-air broadcast people have the ability to get those numbers."
Cable executives expect viewing of the major networks to rebound in September as they launch their new seasons, but they point out that the number of viewers who return to the networks dwindles a little more every fall.
They also cite cable's ability to capitalize on network repeats and establish their own franchises over the summer, such as USA Network's action block that includes "La Femme Nikita" and "Pacific Blue," which has sharply improved its ratings on Sunday nights.
"Advertisers are following a breakaway show like 'Nikita,' " said USA Networks Chairman Kay Koplovitz. "We are starting to see the money move with those viewers. If we can continue to increase our ratings, we'll see dollars move in behind them."
In certain segments of the audience, that has already happened. Nickelodeon dominates the market for children's programming in both ratings and advertiser sales. Throughout the year, the cable channel--available in a little more than 70% of U.S. homes--usually out-rates any broadcast network from 8 to 9 p.m. among children.
"The broadcast networks have abandoned kids . . . particularly in the early prime-time hours," said Sam Moser, senior vice president of sales for Nickelodeon and its spinoff channel, TV Land.
That said, many popular cable programs, like wrestling and some of the movies televised by TNT, TBS and USA, don't have much allure for A-list sponsors.
"It's not just ratings, it's also the quality of the shows you have on your air. Just because TNT gets a [rating], it doesn't mean people want to [advertise] in 'Friday Nitro,' " said Preston Beckman, senior vice president of program planning and scheduling at NBC, referring to the cable network's packaging of action movies under that title.
Calling audience erosion "an inevitable trend," Beckman also defended the network practice of scheduling reruns during the summer, citing both economic necessity (many shows don't generate a profit until they're repeated) and the high failure rate for new programs introduced in July and August.
"I don't think original programming is the answer," he said.
NBC's own approach this summer was to advertise that reruns you haven't seen are "New to You," based on research showing that most people watch fewer than half the episodes of even their favorite series. While it is scorned by critics, NBC said, viewers understand the campaign's intent, which is, as Beckman put it: "Even though your favorite show is in repeats, don't assume that you've seen the episodes."
Excluding the period during which NBC broadcast the Olympics, summer ratings for the networks have dropped about 5%, NBC estimates, averaging slightly less than 35 million people tuning in nightly.
Despite defending the status quo, network executives do fret about how low the bar can go, admitting that the added competition from cable as well as other alternatives has made it considerably more difficult to introduce and sustain new programs.
Meanwhile, cable executives anticipate that the advertising market eventually will catch up with viewing trends. As the USA network observed in a viewing forecast that irked network officials, the national coverage the networks boast about "means little if nobody's watching.' "
"I think you're seeing changing habits," USA's Koplovitz said. "Great programs will still attract viewers, but the audience is not there for mediocre [network] shows. They're gone. They know they have other choices."