The dial has been touched

It SEEMS much longer than four years ago that NBC marketed the blazes out of a miniseries called "10.5."

A disaster epic about a series of giant earthquakes on the West Coast, "10.5" was a silly hunk of overripe cheese ("a four-hour tour de force of lameness," in the words of critic Tim Goodman). But the 2004 "event" movie was also emblematic of a then-cherished network tradition, the sweeps ratings period, when stations banged the drums for all sorts of specials and stunts crafted as viewer bait.

Like the networks themselves, though, the quarterly sweeps -- which some stations still use to set local ad rates -- have fallen on hard times. For the May sweep that ended last Wednesday, NBC couldn't be bothered to make the earth move. Among the network's prime-time offerings as the period drew to a close: repeats of "The Office," "Law & Order: SVU" and "Most Outrageous Moments."

That's right. During a supposedly competitive sweep, the fourth-place network went with a cornucopia of reruns. (NBC executives declined to comment, according to a spokeswoman.)

NBC paid a steep price for this approach, posting an alarming 27% plunge among adults ages 18 to 49 compared with the year-earlier period, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. That's the kind of earthquake you don't want when you're running a network.

But let's not pick on one network alone. With the exception of Fox's surprisingly strong "American Idol" finale on Wednesday, the May ratings have been pretty atrocious across the board, in a strike-shortened year that's already shaping up as the TV executives' annus horribilis.

The worst part is this may be no temporary hiccup. Increasingly, the shutdown and aftermath of the writers strike that ended in February is beginning to look like a signal moment in the slow, painful meltdown of the broadcast-TV industry.

Broadcasting, simply put, isn't casting broadly anymore. As the sweep suggests, the TV networks are losing not just their viewers but also their sense of specialness. They're becoming just the lowest numbers on the multichannel dial, rather than the last outposts of mass culture. It's true that this evolution has been happening for years, but this year a tipping point was reached, a Rubicon crossed. Broadcast exceptionalism -- its supposed immunity from the market forces afflicting all other media -- is finally dead.

And that, fellow viewers, is a huge problem for those acronymic "legacy" networks. One, it undercuts executives' argument to advertisers that broadcast still delivers the most bang for the buck of any media (negotiations for the sale of bulk ad time next TV season are taking place right now, an inconvenient moment to be sure from the networks' standpoint). Also, the broadcasters' economic model, as it currently stands, is simply unsustainable compared with that of their chief competitors, cable networks. More about that in a minute.

This doesn't necessarily mean that viewers won't come back in greater numbers once the networks roll out their new shows come fall (although given the production interruptions caused by the strike, the number of series premieres will be reduced, which may also weaken ratings). And it's true that the importance of sweeps has been naturally diminishing in recent seasons as Nielsen has refined its measurement techniques.

Still, the May results delivered a jolt to the system. Ratings slipped during the strike as networks ran out of fresh episodes. No surprise there. But conventional wisdom held that viewers would trickle back as their favorite shows returned to the schedule.

For the most part, though, that didn't happen. Even big hits like "Idol" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" sank to their lowest numbers in years. In one typically sobering statistic, ABC lost more than one-fifth of its core young-adult viewers in May. Yes, strike delays may have played a role; "Lost" won't air its season finale until this Thursday, for instance, so its numbers won't count in either the sweep or regular-season tallies. But all the other networks logged double-digit sweep declines, even Fox.

Clearly, something happened. Where'd those viewers go?

Preston Beckman, Fox's scheduling chief, said he was always pessimistic about audiences beating a path back to network series post-strike, even though his employer has the most cause to celebrate of any broadcast outlet this year. When the medical drama "House" prepared to return in late April, Beckman said, he warned the producers that "the season's over." Viewers had simply dropped the habit of watching network series, he reasoned.

"I'm a believer in [the theory], 'Give me an excuse to stop watching your show,' " Beckman told me.

There may be something to that. When you look at the steep declines posted by the broadcasters, two additional statistics are telling. One is that compared with last May, the number of people using television actually went up, by 2%. The other is that this season, the average total viewing for ad-supported cable networks rose a healthy 7%, to 51.6 million.

So more people are watching television. More people are watching cable. And fewer, dramatically fewer, are watching broadcast TV.

This can't continue indefinitely without the broadcasters taking what an airline pilot might call corrective action. The legacy networks can't just learn to be content with cable-size ratings and then call it a day. That's because cable networks have a huge, built-in competitive advantage. Unlike broadcasters, they derive revenue not just from advertising but also subscriber fees, which are part of viewers' monthly cable and satellite bills. Broadcasters, at least until now, have been utterly dependent on income from 30-second commercials.

The broadcast bosses say they're all about change now. NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker spent an hour last week on Charlie Rose's PBS show repeating the mantra that his network has to think now about developing material that can work on multiple "platforms," including online. Easier said than done though. NBC's "American Gladiators" and "Last Comic Standing" belly-flopped in heavily promoted outings recently ("Comic" drew just 5.7 million total viewers opposite the "Grey's Anatomy" season finale Thursday), and it's tough to believe those programs -- both cheap reality fare, with little to no replay value -- will suddenly turn on a magical cash spigot in a different medium.

In re-engineering so heavily toward marketing and various platforms, NBC is trying to have the cart pull the horse. The horse is left behind, wondering what's going on.

The people at Fox are taking a different approach. Two of its most high-profile new series next season, J.J. Abrams' super-expensive drama "Fringe" and Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse," will air with greatly reduced commercial interruptions. By cutting back the ad time available on those shows, the network hopes to persuade advertisers to pay a little more. At a time when network TV is getting buried in ads, sponsorships and product placements, this idea at least returns the focus to where it belongs: on the program.

And programs, ultimately, are the only things that will save the networks in their bid to stay relevant. It's about the programs. It always has been, and it always will be.

Four years ago I couldn't have imagined saying this, but "10.5" is starting to look pretty good now.

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scott.collins@latimes.com

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