The depth and suddenness of the drop in the $600 million kids marketplace is concerning the agency community enough that a major advertising group is undertaking a study to find out why kids aren't watching TV.
The situation is prompting media pundits to question whether CBS, like NBC before it, will abandon children's programming altogether.
CBS may be taking the brunt of the ratings freefall among 2-to-11-year-olds, as defined by Nielsen Media Research. But all the networks appear to be suffering.
In comparing this year to last year-without counting the first week of this season because it started a week earlier-the results are disheartening.
ABC and Fox are off 7% each, down 0.2 of a rating point and 0.4 of a rating point, respectively. CBS' decline is from a 3.3 rating to a 1.3. WB, some of whose stations run its kids' block on Sunday morning, is down 30%, from 2.3 to 1.6.
The only broadcast network seeming to buck the trend is UPN. Comparing its hour of Sunday morning kids' programming last year to the same hour this year, the weblet is up from 1 to 1.4.
Kids don't even appear to be watching TV on Saturdays as much-persons using TV in the category is down 8%, from 24 to 22. The numbers don't get better during the week. Fox's Monday through Friday kids' schedule is down 28%, and WB's is off 29%.
Ad agencies are alarmed enough by the trend to study the issue. Two areas that will be studied are how much time children spend playing videogames or on computers.
"What we need to get is an accurate picture of how kids are spending time," said Debbie Solomon, senior partner-media research at J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago, and chairwoman of Kids tuning out net TV the Advertising Research Foundation's Youth Research Council.
"We will be doing a study about what kids do and how it relates to their use of media," Ms. Solomon said, who noted that the idea was discussed at a council meeting Oct. 2.
One major buying service has alerted its offices and clients that in the first two weeks of the season, gross rating points on kids programming at the broadcast networks are down to 42, from 53.8 GRPs a year ago.
"It's a major problem," said an executive at the buying service.
One place that children are going is to Nickelodeon on cable TV.
Nickelodeon's ratings have been up substantially this season. For the first three weeks, Nick is up 14%.
"Nickelodeon has become the kids franchise," said the executive at the media buying service.
"It's for kids, and they know it" he said. "It's amazing that they do such great numbers and, at most, if you count satellite, they're only in 70% of U.S. households."