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By Ronald Grover If only TV execs were always so focused on entertaining their audiences. The network bigwigs pulled out all the stops in mid-May, when they unveiled their new shows for the upcoming season. CBS brought along David Letterman to do his schtick for the ad buyers. NBC trotted out the cast from Saturday Night Live and The West Wing. The pièce de résistance, however, was Fox's presentation, which had one TV honcho making his entrance on a swing in a not-terribly-fetching impersonation of Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.
It all sounds like fun. But the networks' gaiety can't hide the fact they find themselves in dire straits. Network ratings -- even with big events like a birth on Friends -- were down yet again this season. Worse yet, the march on the networks by HBO, TNT, and the other cable channels continues.
In the just-ended May sweeps, Nielsen's numbers showed that for the first time, more folks were watching cable TV in prime time than were tuned to the four largest networks. The cable guys increased their audience to 49%, while viewership for the Big Four -- ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC -- slipped to just 47% of the overall audience.
BOTTOMED OUT? The networks are restrained by both their business models and the TV definition of "decency." Because it can pay both with ad dollars and a slice of the subscription revenue it gets from cable and satellite operators, TNT can -- and often does -- outbid networks for hot new movies.
Then there's the decency thing. MTV can put on the foul-mouthed but wildly popular (and heavily bleeped) Osborne clan, and FX can offer up the blood-splattered cop drama The Shield, which boasts a roster of hardy advertisers that don't mind the senseless violence and four-letter words. By contrast, the best ABC can do is naked backsides on NYPD Blue.
So, what are the networks to do? One solution, offered by Jamie Kellner, who heads Time Warner's cable and network operations, is to act like radio. With a zillion stations competing for folks' attention, radio figured it out by offering specific formats -- such as country, rock, talk, or sports. With the plethora of cable channels and networks available, the traditional networks had best do the same, Kellner thinks.
GOOD, CLEAN FUN. If you take a look at the networks, it seems they're already starting to do so. ABC, which was a ratings punching bag this season, with a 25% decline in its overall ratings and 19% among its younger viewers, is going family with an hour each night -- from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. -- during which it will air shows aimed at kids and their folks.
Fox has gone back to its roots as the lowest-common-denominator network. Its schedule, already crowded with edgier fare like Cops and America's Most Wanted, will soon include comedies the network hopes will be an alternative to ABC's saccharin family fare. Among its seven new shows are The Grubbs, about a family of underachievers, and The Pitts, about a disaster-prone family.
The idea is for the networks to distinguish themselves better, thus giving advertisers more of a choice -- or more of a reason for picking one network over another. Following one of the worst advertising recessions in recent memory, network ad sales are likely to be off by 6% for the season that ends this summer, to about $24.4 billion, figures Jack Myers, whose Jack Myers Report follows the advertising world.
ZAPPED. Myers expects the upfront market that begins in June for TV shows starting in September to be down some 3%, to about $6.7 billion, for the six networks (including the WB and UPN). Cable, led by channels like Discovery, TNT, and ESPN, which are offering more and more original programming, will see a 5% increase, to $4.2 billion, says Myers.
Kellner's own network, the WB, clearly aims for teens, with shows like Dawson's Creek and Charmed. It's adding more of the same this season, with Do Over, a comedy about a 34-year-old trapped in the body of a 14-year-old, and Birds of Prey, about the crime-fighting exploits of Batgirl confined to a wheelchair.
CBS and sister network UPN, both owned by Viacom, may be going farthest in the game of trying to hit demographics. Leslie Moonves, who runs both networks, says he envisions CBS as aiming at the over-34 crowd, and UPN at the 18-34 crowd. To get there, he has to get the average CBS viewer's age down from around 50, where it has sat for years.
WILL THEY TUNE IN? He has made progress, with shows like Survivor and the Las Vegas-based crime drama CSI. This season, CBS is adding another CSI, based in Miami, and has jettisoned that old-fogy show The Education of Max Bickford. Over at UPN, Moonves is in the hunt for even younger viewers with three new shows, including a remake of Twilight Zone and Haunted, a crime drama about a cop who can contact dead folks.
The question is whether any of these great strategic moves include shows that the folks in the target audiences are going to watch. ABC, which has more holes to fill than a street worker in downtown Detroit, has axed such one-time winners as Spin City, Dharma & Greg, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But will a show starring faded Three's Company star John Ritter as the befuddled dad of a teenage daughter find an audience? ABC's recent track record doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.
Having just released their schedules amid all the hoopla they can generate, the TV networks must convince ad buyers their shows will break cable's increasing stranglehold. Maybe "radioization" is the right strategy. But they've still got to offer shows that people want to watch. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online