The Shrinking World of Broadcast Television

By Erik Sorenson 

The new TV Season is just getting underway, but already there are perennial warning signs of further, potentially deep erosion in the audience watching the biggest network shows. Over the most recent weekend, “Desperate Housewives” attracted 5.5 million fewer viewers for its Season Debut than cued up for the 2008 opener–and “Saturday Night Live”s debut also bombed compared to last year. Now, NBC was quick to point out that last year’s debut was boosted by Tina Fey and the Presidential Campaign. And Hollywood wags will speculate that “Desperate” may have jumped the shark, causing its plunge.

Defenders of the flame will point to stronger critical reviews of network programming, and some ratings exceptions like “Flash Forward” and “Grey’s Anatomy” on the first real Thursday night, September 24th. They will tell you that CBS and Fox were up (slightly) versus 2008 for the first week in A1849 (even though NBC, ABC and the CW were way, way down.) They will tell you that some top shows haven’t even debuted yet. They’ll tell you the weather is still nice and the busier-than-ever Americans haven’t fully settled in, following a later-than-usual Labor Day.

But check out this handy chart compiled by our friends at TVByTheNumbers:

But consider this final indicator: in the first couple weeks of September, the #1 programs on broadcast and cable were NFL football games. And all of The Big Three have benefited from games in Prime, or games that spilled into Prime. While still early in a long season, this supports the growing opinion that “event programming” is the only way to stem the loss of audience to cable, the DVR and the internet.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.