CBS, ABC Ratings Would Have Garnered Last Place in 2001

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NEW YORK ( -- In today’s media-fragmented world, stability, it turns out, is just as good as growth. CBS went from fourth place to first from fourth quarter 1997 to fourth quarter 2005 -- although its adult 18-to-49 rating hasn’t budged, according the latest Magna Global primetime report.

“The fact you can have a CBS being stable basically for 10 years, when ad-supported TV goes from 50 to 100 channels, that’s pretty impressive,” said Steve Sternberg, who authored the report.

Retaining their audiences
It’s an effect of the decline in broadcast TV viewing and something everybody in the industry intrinsically knows -- but a look at the numbers is still striking. The report compared fourth-quarter ratings for the six broadcast networks over the past decade and found CBS and ABC got where they are not by growing their audiences, but by retaining them while others have bled viewers.

ABC, for example, is challenging CBS for the lead among adults 18-to-49 with virtually the same rating, a 3.9, that was good for last place in 2001. (A rating is a percentage of all TV households. A 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with TV.)

Of course, with all of ABC’s success stories --“Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” -- one might think the network should be doing better than it did in 2001. But those increases have been offset by ratings losses in comedies and news magazines. NBC, meanwhile, went from a 4.9 rating and 13 share in adults 18-to-49 five years ago to today’s 3.2/9, and Fox dropped from 4.4/12 to 3.1/9 during the same period. (A share is a percentage of TV households that have their sets on at a given time.)

Fox expects big push
But the current season is far from over. While Fox trails the other three networks, Mr. Sternberg expects the return of “American Idol” and “24” will boost it into contention for the top spot. He even has a glass half-full, glass half-empty approach to NBC’s travails. On one hand, the network’s third-place average rating for adults 18-to-49 is only 0.8 away from tying CBS’s first-place number. On the other hand, it’s faltered with younger viewers.

“The network is actually on par with last season among both adults 35-plus and 50-plus,” Mr. Sternberg noted. “But its sharp loss among the under-35s has resulted in NBC’s average median age getting perilously close to 50, not good news for a network that has long claimed that only adults 18-49 mattered.”

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