It's an historical pattern that has comforted many a third-place network programming chief, offering hope a turnaround is merely a pilot away.
But going into the 1994-95 TV season, some TV observers see the prime-time ratings battle as being more a game of jump ball than the traditional horse race.
"There are an awful lot of variables going into this season. It's hard to tell who's going to come out on top," admits Betsy Frank, senior VP-director of TV information and new media at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.
Indeed, the 1993-94 thoroughbred, CBS, finished the season with an average 14.0 rating, or percentage of households tuned in. That gave CBS a significant lead over ABC's 12.4, NBC's 11.0 and Fox's 7.2.
But much of the impetus for CBS' finish came from special-event programming-particularly sports-that it won't have next season.
The 1994 Winter Olympic Games from Lillehammer, Norway, contributed mightily to CBS' performance, but CBS won't carry another Olympics telecast until the 1998 Winter Games.
To make matters worse, CBS yielded the rights to cover baseball and football, making it the only major broadcast network without telecasts of a professional team-sport league.
ABC, meanwhile, had the strongest new series performance of any network in 1993-94, including significant hits like "Grace Under Fire," "NYPD Blue" and "These Friends of Mine" (now called "Ellen"). Next season it also will have two major sports events, the baseball World Series and football Super Bowl.
In 1993-94, NBC halted its prime-time freefall and began to show a turnaround. The network built a powerhouse Thursday night schedule around "Seinfeld" and the "Cheers" spinoff "Frasier," which will be moved to Tuesday nights opposite ABC's "Roseanne" in a campaign to destablize ABC's franchise night.
But perhaps the most significant difference going into the new season is Fox. The fledgling, fourth network picked up the rights (from CBS) to televise the NFL's National Football Conference games and recently struck a deal with New World Communications Group that will bring Fox closer to parity with the Big 3.
In the New World agreement, involving a Fox investment of $500 million, 12 New World-owned stations on the VHF band-containing the stronger-signal channels 2 through 13-will switch affiliations from a Big 3 network to Fox.
Of these 12 stations, eight were CBS affiliates.
If CBS is forced to live with former Fox stations on the weaker UHF band, containing channels 14 through 83, Black Rock executives estimate the network may lose as much as 2% of its national coverage and as much as 0.2 rating points off of its national average for next season.
"If next year was going to be a game of jump ball, this means we're going to have a little more of a jump," says Joe Abruzzese, senior VP-sales of CBS.
While the shift alters the prime-time playing field-perhaps making it more level for all four networks-CBS executives still believe they have the most powerful players to bring to that field.
"Programming drives all the engines," says CBS President Howard Stringer. "And we have the best."
Obviously putting the situation in the best possible light, Mr. Stringer says the Fox/New World deal and CBS' loss of its sports event programming will make the 1994-95 season "more fun." The reason, he optimistically adds, is because "this time we are going to win [prime time] on our own terms."
Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcasting at Grey Advertising, New York, agrees that while the shifts taking place are significant, they by no means guarantee doom for CBS.
"A lot of people are thinking about these changes in a very short-sighted way, that it is good for Fox and bad for CBS," says Mr. Mandel. "The truth is that it's probably not as good as it looks for Fox and not as bad as it looks for CBS."
Indeed, even senior Fox executives admit its two-fisted punch of the NFL and the New World deal merely give the network the opportunity to close the gap with the Big 3. But they don't assure that it will.
"We still need to develop the guns," admits a senior Fox executive. "All the distribution and promotion in the world won't do you any good if you don't have programming that people want to watch."
Although Fox hopes its new affiliates and NFL coverage introduce more viewers to its prime-time fare, much of its programming still appeals to young adults-the group other TV programmers are pursuing.
And having three competitors focus on one audience could be CBS' real advantage in the upcoming season.
"If ABC goes after the 23 year olds, and Fox goes after the 23 year olds, and the [information] superhighway goes after the 23 year olds," then CBS will have a greater opportunity of capturing more viewers overall, predicts Mr. Stringer.
"They believe the older audience is here to stay, and I wouldn't disagree with that," says Werner Michel, senior VP-director of national broadcast at BJK&E Media Group, New York.
But "CBS has some problems," he adds. "They are doing fine in the older demographics, but in the younger demographics, they are not."
Indeed, CBS's 1993-94 household ratings success came largely from older viewers, who tuned in to shows like "Murder, She Wrote." Among adults aged 35 to 54, for example, CBS averaged a 9.4 rating, compared to an 8.1 for ABC, a 7.5 for NBC and a 4.1 for Fox.
But among adults aged 18 to 34, CBS was last of the Big 3 and just barely nudged out Fox, 5.8 to 5.7. ABC led with a 6.9 and NBC had a 6.2.
Among adults ages 18 to 24, CBS had only a 4.3 rating, compared with 5.8 for Fox, 5.2 for ABC and 5.0 for NBC.
CBS executives say they will continue to try and develop shows that appeal to younger viewers, but not at the expense of overall viewers, because network TV's strength is mass.
"CBS' strategy is to let everybody else fight over the younger viewers, and focus on reaching the broadest audience possible. And that's not such a bad thing," says Mr. Michel.