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Networks dogged by drop in ratings

Ellen Gray
Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

I wouldn't want to be a TV executive next week, as broadcasters meet with advertisers in New York to talk about the fall season, make the case that network television's still the place to put their ads and try to explain, yet again, where all those missing viewers have gone.

A few years ago, ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson kicked off his network's dog-and-pony show by taking the stage with Edyta Sliwinska of "Dancing With the Stars" to high marks all around.

This year, as the industry comes off another season of lowered expectations, dominated by a writers strike that helped some viewers break the habits that tied them to some of their favorite shows, most of the glitz is gone from the May ritual. But that doesn't mean McPherson and other programmers won't be dancing as fast as they can.

Because while season-to-date numbers for total viewers show a slightly larger percentage of us have been watching television in prime time than were a year ago - 39.2 percent vs. 38.9 percent - you might not guess it from the broadcast Nielsen ratings, some of which are beginning to look more like cable ratings.

This season, I've seen numbers for series on major networks that once would have been unthinkable.

I've heard shows with fewer than 10 million viewers - meaning not even one in 30 people watches - described as hits.

And I've seen more and more indications that people with cable aren't looking for more than four broadcast networks.

If that many.

ABC, which sends out a report on the previous night's broadcast ratings daily, reminds reporters each morning that more viewers than ever are using digital video recorders to time-shift their viewing, making it harder than ever to compare year-to-year ratings. A year ago at this time, DVR penetration in the sample Nielsen uses was estimated at more than 15 percent. It's now more than 24 percent, according to ABC.

I'm not a statistician - nor do I play one on TV - but I think what they're saying is that we shouldn't compare apples to pomegranates.

Nielsen Media Research's own Web site offers some intriguing nuggets but no clear answer to the question "Where'd everybody go?":

In a look at the season to date, scripted shows continue to take a back seat to "Idol" and to both the fall and spring editions of "Dancing."

What I didn't know, until I looked, is that it might no longer be a question of whether CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" or ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" is the most-watched drama on television.

Because on one ratings chart that honor belongs to ABC's "Desperate Housewives," which as of last week was No. 6 in the total-viewer Nielsens for the season to date, with 18.4 million viewers. (This past Sunday, the show averaged 16.6 million, according to the preliminary Nielsens, which should put "CSI" on top for last week, at least.)

The No. 2 scripted show for the season? Fox's "House."

Not only is Hugh Laurie's acerbic doctor averaging 17.6 million viewers for the season to date - though last week's episode drew only 14.6 million - but three back-to-back episodes of "House" on USA were the highest-rated scripted programming on cable for the week that ended April 27.

Viewership for those "House" reruns ranged from 3.9 million to 4.79 million, which is better than two "According to Jim" reruns did last week on ABC.

Before anyone gets too excited: Laurie's still way, way behind "SpongeBob Squarepants," which claimed 18 spots in cable's Top 40 that week.

For all the promotion money that's gone into the CW's "Gossip Girl," MTV's (theoretically) unscripted "The Hills" seems to be more of a Monday night destination.

On March 24, when it returned with new episodes for an extended Season 3, "The Hills" drew 4.78 million viewers, second only to the Kids Choice Awards on Nickelodeon in the week's cable rankings. In the most recent week rated, "The Hills" drew 3.75 million viewers.

"Gossip Girl," meanwhile, averaged 2.4 million on Wednesdays earlier this season. Post-strike, it's on Monday nights, where last week it drew 2.5 million.

Moving NBC's "30 Rock" to the post-"Office" slot even temporarily seems to have backfired, despite hopes that the show could capitalize on the success of Tina Fey's "Baby Mama" (while not getting mowed down by "Grey's" and "CSI").

On April 17, the last time it aired at 8:30 p.m. EDT, the show drew 6.5 million viewers. A week later at 9:30, it was down to 5.5 million, and last week it fell to 5.38 million, losing more than 2 million viewers from its lead-in.

The numbers may be down a little for "American Idol," but they're up for "Dancing With the Stars," which this season is averaging 20 million for its Monday performance shows, up slightly from 19.9 million a year ago, and 17.3 million for its Tuesday results shows, up from 16.75 million last spring.

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