A new analysis from Interpublic's Magna shows that the TV audience for the big four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) continues to shrink this season as viewers shift to cable TV.
Steve Sternberg, Magna's evp audience analysis, writes in a report issued today that "all broadcast viewing among adult age groups is down between 5 and 10 percent from last season...Ad-supported cable has picked up virtually all of the defecting broadcast viewers."
Among the big four networks, Sternberg, wrote, the ratings races among the key adult demos of 18-49 and 25-54 are "up for grabs," although he notes that CBS maintains "strength" among viewers 35-plus, while Fox maintains an edge among viewers under 35.
Looking ahead to next season, Sternberg said that ABC, which tends to focus singularly on attracting women to the network and has led in at least one of the key female demos for several seasons, might be dethroned. CBS has taken over the lead with women 25-54 this season while Fox is putting pressure on ABC's lead among women 18-34. ABC's lead among women 18-49 is a "razor thin" margin over both Fox and CBS, he said.
"Given its lack of new-series success, ABC could be in big trouble if its key female dramas -- Grey's Anatomy, Lost and Desperate Housewives -- continue to slip." Sternberg wrote. In addition, its modestly successful sitcom Ugly Betty "has already weakened considerably, and may be on the bubble. ABC also needs to come up with series that can effectively replace two hours of Dancing With the Stars when it goes off in the first quarter."
CBS, meanwhile, which continues to maintain its lead in total viewers, may be best positioned going into next season, Sternberg opined. The network has had the most success developing new scripted series over the past five years and has the most scripted programming (82 percent) among the big four in prime time. "CBS has been the most stable network on a year-to-year basis [and] seems to be in the best shape with its returning series heading into the upfront," Sternberg said.
Sternberg gave a thumbs up to NBC's decision to strip Jay Leno in prime time next fall, a move that he said could benefit that network and its competitors: "It will enable NBC to concentrate on programming fewer hours of scripted entertainment series. It will certainly be a big money saver for NBC. It could help CBS and ABC dramas in the hour. And it could provide advertisers with new and innovative opportunities."
As for Fox, Sternberg said the network has to start doing a better job of developing new scripted fare. Just 15 percent of Fox's new scripted series during the past five years were on the network's schedule to start this season, he said. "Of course, having only two-thirds as many hours to program as ABC, CBS or NBC, and having American Idol providing an annual rating surge in mid-season, means that it didn't need as many scripted successes. But Idol won't last forever, and Fox could use another scripted success next season."