The program, TV coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial and its incredible aftermath, has been the hottest event of the new season and has wreaked havoc on the viewing patterns of virtually everything non-O.J.
The disruption has been so severe that, three weeks into the new season, media buyers and network researchers who would normally offer early assessments on program performance wouldn't even hazard a guess on the new fall slate.
"Part of the problem is that I'm confused," said Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of broadcast research at BJK&E Media Group, New York. "There are more than 100 prime-time shows on the networks. If you ask me what's on tonight, I'd have to think about it. And if I'm confused-and I do this for a living-imagine what the average TV viewer is thinking."
Nielsen Media Research data indicate that viewers may still be thinking about the seriallike Simpson drama. Fourteen of the 15 highest-rated basic cable programs for the week ended Oct. 8 were CNN coverage of Simpson-related news, including a 10 rating Oct. 3 for CNN's live coverage of the verdict.
Since the Sept. 18 start of the new season, CNN has accounted for 76 of the top 100 shows on cable and Court TV's Simpson coverage for three, which is remarkable since Court TV is only in 23.7 million TV homes.
Cable executives estimate that as much as 14% of basic cable's prime-time ratings gains over the summer and leading into the new Mr Tyrer is Electronic Media's Los Angeles bureau chief.
season are attributable to Simpson trial coverage by networks like CNN, Court TV and E! Entertainment, which carried most of their coverage in daytime. On a total day basis, cable executives estimate that as much as 45% of cable's gains have been due to the trial.
But cable and broadcast industry executives point out that not all of cable's gains are due directly to Simpson coverage. Even cable entertainment networks and programs have benefited from displacement of regular network TV viewers who have been sampling more cable fare over the course of the trial.
This has affected the new season substantially if you look at the first three weeks. Season-to-date, the gross prime-time rating for the Big 4 broadcast networks is down 7.1% to a 40.4.
Basic cable is up 24.3% to a 17.4. With virtually all other viewing sources flat, cable's gains appear to be coming at the expense of the broadcast nets. Incremental ratings from part-time fledgling networks UPN and WB also probably are drawing from the Big 4.
The O.J. factor doesn't completely explain why entertainment networks like Turner Broadcasting System's Cartoon Network has doubled its viewership over last season, to about 273,000 TV households per average viewing minute. Or why other major entertainment channels like Nickelodeon, Lifetime, TNT, Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, Country Music Television, Comedy Central, Family Channel, Black Entertainment Television and ESPN are all showing double-digit increases.
"If you take the O.J. factor out now, we will still have very strong growth for cable. Even when you factor CNN, Court TV and E! out of the equation, there has been tremendous growth for cable," said Bob Sieber, VP-audience development for Turner Networks.
Mr. Sieber said that has served as a double-whammy for the broadcast networks, because higher cable network ratings have contributed to increased circulation for their on-air promotion and advertising promoting their new fall slates, while the big nets have fewer rating points to promote their new shows.
Dave Poltrack, CBS exec VP-research and planning, grudgingly agreed: "The problem we have is with a relatively lower circulation base and the most new programs, it's going to take us the longest amount of time to get those shows sampled and to hopefully establish some new shows in their positions."
Mr. Poltrack should know. His network is contributing the most to the Big 4's freefall. Season-to-date, CBS has fallen 17.8% to a 9.7 rating. NBC is down 6.6% to an 11.3, ABC is down 0.8% to a 12 and Fox is off 1.3% to a 7.4.
Last week, CBS made the first official cancellation of the new prime-time season, axing the Monday night sitcom "If Not for You."
While CBS is in the poorest position this season, none of the broadcast networks has much to brag about in terms of new show offerings. With the exception of shows launching in strong time slots that benefit from adjacent veteran network series, advertisers and media buyers said there are no genuine hits yet this season.
"There are 42 new shows in prime time, and half the schedule is either new shows or shows in new time periods. I think the viewers are just confused," said Mike Neavill, AT&T director of media.
Mr. Neavill added that the problem has been compounded by the "sameness" of the new shows and the fact that many seem to be derived from other successful series such as NBC's hit "Friends."
Of the 42 new network series, media buyers generally cited only NBC's "Caroline in the City" and "Single Guy" (both on NBC's powerhouse Thursday night lineup) and ABC's "Hudson Street" (on ABC's Tuesday night lineup) as doing well, but that those shows are benefiting primarily from their time slots.
If patterns for the broadcast networks and cable are hard to read, media buyers and TV industry executives said they are virtually impossible to discern for nationally syndicated shows. While some ratings are available, many of the new prime-time syndicated shows haven't premiered yet.
A few returning syndicated shows appear to be showing improved performance, including talkers like "Jenny Jones," "Montel Williams" and "Jerry Springer." And, so far, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" appears to be coming on strong now that the talk diva has re-upped her contract with King World. Since the end of the Simpson trial, "Oprah" has shown the greatest growth-up 24% to a 9.4 rating-of any syndicated talk show.