That's helping fuel expectations for a robust prime-time network TV upfront-buying season, for shows on the Big 3, Fox, WB and UPN networks. In fact, the Big 3 and Fox could combine for a record $5.4 billion, with each of these four networks tallying at least $1 billion.
But some media buyers say that with all of the networks focused more keenly on either adults 18-49 or adults 18-34, they will in the long run further fractionalize a relatively limited audience pool.
Combine these fears with show-quality concerns, and media buyers say the networks will have to be careful not to overserve the young-adult audience-and kill the goose that lays today's golden eggs.
"In going after this younger audience for which advertisers are willing to pay more money, it's almost as if we're eating our own young," says Mike Clark, VP-director of TV programming at Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.
"Today's younger audience is tomorrow's middle-aged audience. When the three network share dips to below 50% on a regular basis, we will have an absolute revolution in network television," he adds.
It used to be that ABC was the urban, youth-oriented network; CBS was the older and rural network; and NBC was somewhere in between. But Fox emerged as a national TV network in the late '80s and showed the Big 3 how pursuing a younger audience could be fruitful. That's an example the other networks were quick to follow.
"From a supply-and-demand perspective, there never really is enough young-skewing audience or programming to go around," says Rich Hamilton, senior VP-media and administration for D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York.
"There's an aggressive effort from the networks to try to capitalize on the demand for those sorts of audiences."
CBS is now attempting to make the same transition, albeit from a higher age plateau, that NBC made over the last five seasons.
"CBS now claims it wants to attract the younger audience at the same time Fox wants to attract an older audience," says Steve Grubbs, senior VP-national broadcast buying for BBDO Worldwide, New York.
"As an agency that's a major buyer of the youth demographics, I'm not happy about that Fox strategy. But I am happy on the other side of the coin that CBS is heading in that direction," he adds.
Further threatening to increase erosion of the network TV audience, some buyers say, is the growth of cable viewership-especially those that skew to young adults.
"It's more than just the older viewers leaving, because MTV is still going strong, Comedy Central is strong, E! is strong and they are all young-skewing networks," says Bill Croasdale, president of national broadcast for Western International Media, a Los Angeles-based media-buying service.
"It's not so much the Big 3 are all devouring one another as much as it is the total number of viewer options."
Media buyers say there's still enough of an audience base in the nets to produce another fledgling hit series like "E.R." or "Friends" that could anchor the rest of one night's schedule.
However, some buyers fear that in the programming rush to reach younger adults, the networks will offer even poorer-quality, B-level product and end up hurting their long-term prospects.
"When it comes to sitcoms, and you're competing against two or three others [for] the exact same audience, the temptation is to go for the racy joke or the outrageous or the things that will be more volatile," says Mr. Clark.
Case in point: today's talk show market.
"When you have so many fractionalizing the market, it kills it for everyone. More importantly, for the viewer, it brings the lowest common denominator down even lower," Mr. Clark adds.
The interest in the younger-adult audience has also endangered the 8 p.m. (ET) "safe haven" for family viewing.
ABC and NBC, for example, have shifted shows like "Mad About You," "Ellen," "Friends" and "Roseanne" into important 8 p.m. slots. And last season Fox slotted "Melrose Place" in that hour.
Those sorts of shows are a favorite marketing vehicle for major film studios, anxious to promote next weekend's new R-rated feature.
Media buyers predict an important precedent will be set once those studios-three of which now either own or have equity options in networks-begin marketing these films in the 8 p.m. hour.
Thomas Tyrer and Junu Bryan Kim