Youth truth: ABC

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ABC has taken an old-fashioned pounding so far this broadcast season-but it plans to don younger fashions in the days ahead.

Though ABC has plummeted in virtually all viewership categories this November sweeps period so far-down over 20% in most demographics-it has, remarkably, pushed itself into first place in one area this season: It now has the youngest median age of the Big 3 networks, according to Nielsen Media Research-44.6 years.

NBC is now second-oldest at 45.1, its viewers now a year older vs. a year ago. CBS is still in third, down slightly to a 51.3 vs. a 52.0 from the same period last year.

ABC hopes to improve on its younger median age by working quickly in putting into development a dozen half-hour comedies-a young-skewing genre-hoping that at least one will find its way on the schedule by midseason in January, according to Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of Walt Disney Co.'s ABC Television Entertainment Group. "Then we are going to do the same thing for the summer; then the same thing for the fall," he said.

Specifically, ABC lowered its median age by cutting back on the airings of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," which was still getting good overall viewership numbers, but increasingly skewed older through last season. The show moved to two airings a week this season from four a year ago. Last year, ABC's median age was 47.1.

Additionally, the network also benefited this year from a surprise improvement in its Wednesday early evening block of family-oriented sitcoms-"My Wife and Kids" and "According to Jim"-which brought in young viewers. Another new show, the Sunday hour-long drama "Alias," about a young female college student who is also CIA agent, also skews young.

"We are looking to do shows that fit into an ABC sensibility," said Mr. Braun, concerning the success of the family sitcoms. "For a few years we strayed away from that. As we rebuild we are going to start with our strength."

All this could prove to be good news for the network in the future. Right now ABC's low numbers speak for themselves.

Through the first 15 days of the sweeps period, ABC dropped mightily-22% in its adults 18-49 rating from a year ago. Now it stands at a Nielsen Media Research 3.9% rating/10% share, placing it fourth behind Fox, NBC and CBS. (A rating is a percentage point of all households with TVs; a share is a percentage point of households watching TV.)

That's not all. ABC has lost 20% in adults 25-54, 22% in households, and 22% in total viewers year-to-year. ABC is in fourth place in each of these categories as well, down from second place last year.

"ABC's young median age would be a little more impressive if they weren't showing year to year double-digit [audience] declines," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-audience research for WPP Group's Media Edge, New York.

ABC's numbers are as bad as they are because at this time last year, "Millionaire" was pulling in an 8 rating in adults 18-49; now the show is doing 3 ratings in adults 18-49. Compounding this was the fact "Millionaire" was on not once, but four nights a week.

"Millionaire" also caused another problem. As it started to skew older, ABC couldn't promote its other shows to younger viewers in the dominating "Millionaire" show, since young viewers weren't watching the game show to begin with. So ABC's younger shows, such as "The Practice," and "The Drew Carey Show" got hurt.

Young viewers are valuable to advertisers and ad agencies, with the adult 18-49 demographic the most valued. "Median age is important; you want to see them get younger," Mr. Schwartz said. "They are losing the older audience and that's a good sign that there is less waste [when advertisers buy ABC shows]. But they are not maintaining the younger audience."

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