NBC's rating fall good for buyers

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For more than a decade, NBC has been the network to beat. Now it's taken a beating, skidding to No. 4 in prime time season to date among viewers 18-49. One Wall Street analyst figures up to 5% of next spring's upfront could shift from NBC to rivals if current ratings hold. This is good news-for advertisers.

Rivals are growing, and NBC's Supertrain has been derailed. Advertisers should enjoy the show. The marketplace benefits when there is heated competition rather than prolonged domination by one network.

NBC since the `80s has ruled Thursday night, the highest-priced commercial night of the week, setting the prime rate with programs from "The Cosby Show" to "Friends." On the power of its Cos celebre, NBC rocketed to No. 1 in prime-time ratings in 1985-86. Since then, it's commanded the top spot more times than any other network.

NBC now is fighting for viewers Thursday-and every day. CIBC World Markets' Michael Gallant, the aforementioned media analyst, noted that NBC's share of nightly gross rating points in the first seven weeks of the season was down every night of the week.

ABC, meanwhile, has come back to life, gaining in overall viewers and in the coveted demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds. CBS is adding younger viewers.

Network TV is still the biggest national medium, but networks face scrutiny over broadcast's shrinking audience. Combined prime-time ratings for NBC, CBS and ABC fell 19% from the 1999-2000 season to 2003-04, Nielsen Media Research figures show. Over the same period, the three networks' prime-time revenue rose 18%, according to Broadcast Cable Financial Management Association data. That's a great deal-for sellers, not buyers.

What now? This is how Ad Age years ago summarized NBC's rise: "The 1985-86 season marks the 60th anniversary of NBC and the first time it ever wins the prime-time ratings race. NBC hikes rates for early buys of 1986-87 season time, but ABC and CBS cut rates for first time." What goes up can come down.

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