According to Nielsen Media Research, the six broadcast networks stumbled right out of the gate with the Monday night shows delivering a combined household rating of 36.5, off a full point from last year. Ratings among the 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers covet also declined, hitting 20.9 on Sept. 22, down from 23.2 last year.
By Thursday, the four nights averaged out to a 34.2 household rating, compared with 35.5 for the same nights in 2002. The numbers among viewers 18-to-49 fell to 19.7, down from 22.1.
"The numbers don't look so good," said Bob Riordan, senior VP-managing director of national broadcast for Havas' Media Planning Group, New York. "It makes you think twice when the upfront comes around next year whether to go into it so quickly again."
Overall, media buyers pointed out that the numbers confirm that TV viewers are slowly migrating away from broadcast. "It's just more fragmented," said Steve Grubbs, CEO of Omnicom's PHD U.S. "There hasn't been much change in total television usage and total viewership in the last few years. What has changed is the fragmentation created by the increase in channel capacity."
NBC still rules the crucial Thursday night lineup with a 16.4 household rating, with CBS in second, closing the gap at 15.1. The Peacock network dropped 4% from last year. NBC's 45-minute episode of "Friends" on Sept. 25 was strong, with a 16.4 household rating, but that was off from last year's season premiere, which pulled in a 22.5.
Also the "ER" premiere dropped from 18.7 last year to 17.3. The maiden voyage of sexy offering "Coupling," with an 11.7 rating, didn't gain NBC any ground. Last year, "Good Morning Miami" launched in that same time slot with a 12.7.
"We expected to see NBC come down," said Kris Magel, national broadcast director at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia, "because Thursday night hasn't seen increases in years."
Some observers said NBC's schedule has grown stale, while CBS-only in its second year with "CSI:Miami," a show that won Thursday night and the week with a 19.1 rating-has some pop in its programming.
"CBS is still young," Mr. Grubbs said. "And by that I mean, their shows haven't peaked yet. They still have room to grow. The NBC shows have probably peaked."
"CBS moving up a little was expected, "Mr. Magel said, adding, "ABC is looking better than their premieres last year."
Still, according to media agency executives, advertisers will hold their opinions on shows until after a few weeks.
"It's still too early to make judgments," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of media research at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia. "The audience has to settle. They're trying out new shows. It really depends on what comes back next week. Overall, on a household basis, NBC squeaked out a victory over CBS in week one. We'll have to see how long that lasts. Maybe CBS can overcome NBC's powerful Thursday night lineup."