Broadcast Nets to Close Season With Only CBS Up

With just under two weeks to go before the end of another traditional television season (concluding May 20), CBS and Fox are poised to take the ratings crowns—CBS on top of total viewers and Fox winning in the key adults 18-49 demographic. Based on national Nielsen Media Research data through Sunday, May 3, the two networks are also tied among adults 25-54.

CBS is the only broadcast network to end the 2008-09 season on the plus side, with growth of 12 percent in total viewers (11.7 million), 7 percent in adults 18-49 (No. 2 overall at a 3.2 rating/8 share) and 8 percent among adults 25-54 to a 4.1/10. A lineup of successful scripted comedies and dramas, durable reality, granddaddy 60 Minutes and the biggest new hit of the season, The Mentalist, all conspired to secure CBS’ gains.

Before CBS pops any champagne just yet, it’s important to keep in mind that last season’s ratings for all the broadcast networks were down considerably due to the 14-week writer’s strike. With that in mind, they all should have looked better this season compared to last.

Erosion for Fox this season of 14 percent in total viewers (9.7), 14 percent in adults 18-49 (3.6/10) and 11 percent among adults 25-54 (4.1/10) should have its executives worried. The Fox freshman class this year (Fringe, Do Not Disturb, Hole in the Wall, Secret Millionaire, Lie to Me, Dollhouse and Sit Down, Shut Up) netted less-than-stellar results. Even stalwart American Idol, which continues to stand head and shoulders above the competition with as high as a 9.9/25 among adults 18-49 for the Tuesday telecast, cannot stop the bleeding.

Third-place ABC has a wide advantage over the No. 4 network, NBC, in total viewers (8.9 million vs. 7.9 million), with a decline of 3 percent for ABC and 4 percent for NBC from one year earlier.  But ABC’s margin of leadership over NBC among adults 18-49 (2.9/8 vs. 2.8/8) and adults 25-54 (3.4/8 vs. 3.3/8) is razor thin. And both networks are close to year-ago levels. Suddenly consistent NBC did, however, have the advantage of airing Super Bowl XLIII (which was a close game, translating to higher ratings) this season.

While NBC is hopeful for already renewed recent entries Parks and Recreation and Southland, both have lost steam in the final stretch. And neither ABC nor NBC was able to produce a new breakout this season. Most disappointing for ABC, though, was now-defunct drama Life on Mars, which lost a large chunk of the audience from high-profile (but declining) lead-ins Grey’s Anatomy and Lost.

Last-place The CW has a separate focus: women 18-34. But the despite ongoing buzz for Monday serial Gossip Girl, the network overall is down in that demo by 7 percent from last season to 1.3/4. Looking more broadly at adults 18-34 doesn’t help the network either—by that tally, it’s down by 9 percent to 1.0/3. What will work to The CW’s advantage next season, however, is the absence of struggling Sunday, which the network is handing back to its affiliates—without that ratings drag, its numbers should pick up next season.