Network TV Picture Looking Fuzzy, Especially at Fox

A once-promising season is now resembling its immediate predecessors, and Fox's star is in danger of falling fast.
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Reports of the rebirth of network television have been greatly exaggerated.

The fall TV season opened strongly last month, giving analysts and television execs hope that the two-decade slide in network viewership might finally have stopped, or at least slowed. But with a month of data now available, it's clear that network audiences are continuing to shrink.

The baseball playoffs, which have attracted unusually heavy interest this year with several exceptionally tight games, propped up ratings at the

Fox

network and

NBC

last week. But factor those out, and the trend is clear: Total viewership is flat or slightly down at the

CBS

network and NBC, and down close to 10% at Fox and

ABC

. And all the networks have seen drops in viewers aged 18-49, the group advertisers prefer.

While there have been a couple of hits, several new shows that looked promising at first have lost ground, and some older stalwarts are showing their age. Try as they might, the broadcasters still can't stop the growth of cable networks, which are investing more in original programming than ever before.

Far From the Henhouse

But the pain hasn't been shared equally this year. The biggest loser has been the Fox network, run by

Fox Entertainment

(FOX) - Get Report

. Its new shows have bombed, and old reliables like

Beverly Hills, 90210

look tired. If Fox can't get some traction soon, it could be in the very uncomfortable position next year of having to replace almost its entire schedule for the 2000 television season. (Fox is a subsidiary of

News Corp.

(NWS) - Get Report

, which owns a minority stake in

TheStreet.com Inc.

(TSCM)

, the publisher of this Web site.

TheStreet.com

also has a TV show that runs on the

Fox News Channel

.)

A Fox spokesman says the network is confident ratings will improve when Fox launches new seasons of

Ally McBeal

and the

X-Files

later this fall.

(As a

TSC

story noted earlier this month, Fox's problems are unlikely to make much difference in the short run to the bottom line of Fox Entertainment, the publicly traded News Corp. subsidiary that owns the network. But in the long run, Fox stock is unlikely to make headway in the face of problems at the network, which pulls in one quarter of Fox's revenue.)

Meanwhile,

General Electric's

(GE) - Get Report

NBC is treading water,

Disney's

(DIS) - Get Report

ABC is sinking slightly and

CBS

(CBS) - Get Report

is emerging as the season's big winner. The geezer network has found success with sturdy dramas and sitcoms that appeal to older viewers, offering fare that's less hip -- and intimidating -- than the teen dramas and ohh-so-witty yuppie comedies inescapable everywhere else. CBS's strategy may not be sexy, but it's working: Several new CBS offerings have drawn solid ratings, and for the second year in a row the network will probably take the overall viewership crown.

Rob Frydlewicz, vice president and media research director for advertising giant

Foote Cone & Belding

, points to

Judging Amy

and

Family Law

, two successful CBS dramas, as the kind of shows that other networks don't offer anymore. "There are so few programs like that," Frydlewicz says. "They still do a good job attracting that older audience."

"CBS is unhip, and America is looking for unhip," jokes David Poltrack, the blunt-talking CBS exec in charge of crunching the numbers for the network.

While CBS remains committed to shows that will appeal to a broad audience,

UPN

(a venture of

Chris-Craft

(CCN)

and

Viacom

(VIA) - Get Report

) and

Time Warner's

(TWX)

WB

have found success this season on the opposite track, programming for narrow niches of young viewers. WB has filled its schedule with soapy youth dramas like

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

and

Angel

in the apparently accurate belief that teenagers only want to watch other teenagers, while UPN has turned into Testosterone Central with

WWF Smackdown

, a wrestling show that has whupped both Fox and ABC on Thursday nights.

Reality Check

Still, the season's biggest story is surely Fox's tailspin. The success of the WB and UPN has squeezed Fox, whose audience is younger than the other major networks. To escape that trap, Fox hoped to focus more tightly on young viewers and offer fewer low-rent reality shows this season.

But with NBC and ABC also scheduling more shows for twentysomethings and teens, the networks have saturated young viewers, and Fox has been the biggest victim. "All of our competitors, to varying degrees, decided to create their versions of the WB show," Poltrack says. "They've basically told the rest of the audience don't bother watching, and you've got shows premiering with 3 and 4 ratings, which is unheard of," Poltrack says. (One ratings point equals 1% of total U.S. homes, or roughly 1 million homes.)

Yet Fox's shows haven't even pulled in 18- to 49-year-olds, the core demographic group Fox hopes to attract: Last week,

Ryan Caufield

, a new Fox drama, drew a pathetic 1.7 rating among adults 18 to 49.

"You take a new cop show like

Ryan Caufield

, and the reviewers don't get all that excited about it, and Friday is a tough night anyhow. ... It just doesn't get launched," says Aaron Cohen, executive vice president at

Horizon Media

, which buys more than $500 million in advertising annually.

In part, Fox's problems stem from its decision not to show most of its new shows, as well as new episodes from its returning shows, during September, the traditional kickoff to the new season. Fox executives think the networks should release new shows throughout the year, instead of unloading dozens of premieres at the same time, when some are bound to be missed.

Unfortunately for Fox, that strategy is now shaping up to be one of the great all-time blunders in network history, since decades of experience have trained audiences to look for fresh shows in September.

"All these shows premiering at the same time creates a sampling mode for the public, and if your product isn't out there when people are sampling, it gets overlooked," Poltrack says. Illustrating the depth of Fox's problems, even one of the industry professionals who spoke for this story repeatedly confused Fox and WB shows, a sign that the network's promotional efforts haven't made much of a dent with viewers.

Sweeping It Under the Rug

To fix things, Fox plans to pull some of its weakest offerings in November, a sweeps month. (Sweeps are traditionally important because they're the months when the fullest spectrum of Nielsen ratings are measured for all markets, not just the big ones.) Still, a Fox executive, speaking on background, says the network won't give up on its efforts to get away from reality shows and toward entertainment programming.

Action

and

Get Real

, both being pulled in November, will be back in December, he says.

Maybe so. But if ratings don't improve, the pressure on Fox executives to revert to reality shows and other one-shot gimmicks will be intense. "This is the most fishbowl industry out there," Cohen says.

In the meantime, catch

World's Wildest Police Videos

this Thursday. At 8 o'clock. On Fox.