In recent months, network executives have begun sounding like true broadcasters once again. While achieving or maintaining dominance in particular demographics is still their ultimate goal, there has been much talk about increasing the bulk of the networks' overall audience as well.
Call it demographic growth through overall volume. Certainly, this has been CBS' approach all along.
But earlier this year, ABC TV Network President Patricia Fili-Krushel, and Alan Wurtzel, senior VP-media development, brand management and research for ABC, spoke to reporters about their network's commitment to broadcasting and the importance of its overall reach.
Mr. Wurtzel said ABC "needs to be viewed not just with an 18-49 component."
Similarly, NBC Entertainment President Scott Sassa told the press that the broadcast business "is really about how many eyeballs you reach. Households do not buy products. People do, and you've got to reach the right people."
EXTEND DEMO REACH
Meanwhile, Fox -- the leader among viewers in the 18-34 demographic -- wants to extend its 18-49 viewership, while current teen sensation WB wants to be No. 1 with the 18-34 group.
UPN, coming off a season of across-the-board demographic and household losses, wants to broaden its programming approach, no longer targeting middle America exclusively, as it attempted to do at the start of the current season.
This is a dramatic change from the mid-'90s, when demo madness ruled everywhere but CBS. Size, it seems, matters after all.
Advertising executives seem to agree. "The networks need to get households first, and then they gradually get their demographics," says Steve Sternberg, senior partner-director of broadcast research at TN Media, New York. "Any time a network tries to change its demographic skew overnight it falls apart for a year or two."
The networks know they are "inevitably going to decline," says David Marans, senior partner-director of U.S. media research and resources at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York. Their new challenge, he explains, is figuring out "how to increase a 3 rating to a 4, or a 4 to a 5. That's how serious erosion and fragmentation are."
Throughout most of the '90s, CBS has valued household growth, even when its competitors took a narrower approach to programming. This strategy seems to have finally paid off: The network has seen minimal household and demographic losses this season and looks strong as the upfront begins, even though it still trails ABC, Fox and NBC in key demographics.
"This year, a lot of CBS' programs have been very stable, or growing in the ratings," Mr. Sternberg notes, adding that the network "is pretty much set" for next season.
"CBS has the fewest time periods to fill," says Mike Greco, manager of broadcast research at BBDO Worldwide, New York.
Some of the credit goes to the renewed strength of the network's Monday night comedy block, he explains, adding, "it would be helpful if CBS found a 10 o'clock drama that could hold the audience," a reference to the unimpressive ratings earned this year by freshman "L.A. Doctors" in that time period.
Life after "Seinfeld" has not been kind to NBC. The longtime broadcast leader, though still in first place in the 18-49 and 25-54 demographics, has weathered severe losses in all categories and erosion on every night this season.
Right now, it is faced with gaping holes on every night except Thursday and Friday.
"Even the nights that are strong for NBC are not as strong as they used to be," says Helen Katz, director of strategic resources at Zenith Media, New York. "They definitely have their work cut out for them."
"The No. 1 network in demos is not even working with regularly scheduled programs in their opening hours on Saturday and Sunday," Mr. Marans scolds. "Usually you try to protect your opening. NBC needs to stop thinking about Thursday and look at the rest of the week."
The only NBC series in development to generate any buzz is "Sammy," a half-hour, semi-autobiographical animated comedy created by David Spade. But this comes at a time when a flood of new animated shows is threatening to exhaust audience interest in the genre.
ABC has had a rough year, as well, although it rallied late in the season with the launch of two successful new comedies, "It's Like, You Know" and "The Norm Show."
"ABC's problem is all of its shows got old together," says Tom DeCabia, exec VP at Schulman/Advanswers, New York. In addition to needing a new breakout comedy hit, Mr. DeCabia says the network desperately needs another strong 10 p.m. drama.
The network has only two dramas on its schedule: "The Practice" and "NYPD Blue." While the former has grown into a hit on Sunday, the latter has continued to lose ground.
The loss of long-time Tuesday night ratings leader "Home Improvement" is a major concern for ABC, says Ms. Katz. While ABC might move "It's Like" or "Norm" to Tuesday, Ms. Katz wonders how these new shows will fare on their own.
Similarly, the network's TGIF Friday night franchise, which also has suffered losses, needs attention.
"ABC needs to figure out if it wants to stick with kid-driven programs," Ms. Katz asserts.
Ms. Katz says the network is "sort of out of the picture" on Thursday and Saturday nights. At its development meeting in March, ABC said it was considering running four comedies and a drama on Thursday, in a direct assault against NBC's eroding juggernaut, because its many efforts at counter-programming NBC on Thursday have failed.
Mr. Greco says ABC might find some success on Saturday with programs targeted toward women.
Fox is heading into the upfront armed with two late season entries in "Futurama" and "Family Guy" and two promising new hours in development, "Time of Your Life" and "Harsh Realm.' The latter is a new series from Chris Carter, exec producer and creator of "The X-Files."
Mr. Greco says "Time of Your Life" is a strong candidate for Monday at 8 p.m. as a lead-in to "Ally McBeal," while "Harsh Realm" seems likely to replace the ailing "Millennium" on Friday at 9 p.m.
With growth in households and virtually every demographic category this season, WB is currently enjoying its status as the only network to show significant growth of any kind this season. But Mr. Marans says he believes the network should proceed with caution. "WB's numbers are better, but they're not that great" referring to its still-small audience share.
Indeed, CBS noted in its development presentation that "more adults 18-34 watch 'Candid Camera' on CBS than 'Buffy, the Vampire Slayer' on WB."
The network's priorities are finding a compatible lead-out program to follow its biggest hit, "7th Heaven" on Monday, and strengthening its Sunday schedule. One hot contender for the Monday opening is "Safe Harbor," a drama about a single father of four boys, from the creator of "7th Heaven."
Mr. Greco suggests WB target the female teen audience on Sunday, although it will require better programming than its stillborn midseason comedy "Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane."
Following the titanic failure of UPN's extensive lineup of new series for the 1998-99 season, the network has suffered serious losses in households and all demographic categories since September. It now faces major problems throughout its schedule.
"The bottom line is, UPN needs a hit program they can build around," says Mr. Greco.
Mr. Marans agrees one strong show will help reverse UPN's fading fortunes. "It doesn't take much," he explains. "UPN had it once, with 'Voyager.' All it took was 'Married . . . With Children' to pull a failing Fox into contention.