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Fox's ratings drop spells opportunity for rival networks

March 3, 2009 |  2:36 pm

Thanks to "American Idol," Fox is still beating up on rivals, at least among the young viewers that advertisers crave. But the punch isn't what it once was. And that means network TV is likely on the cusp of some major programming shifts as it mulls development for next season. 

Through Sunday, Fox is leading the race for adults aged 18-49 with a 3.4 rating/9 share, according to data published Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research. But it's hardly a comfortable edge: CBS lands in second with a 3.2/8. And CBS is a clear No. 1 among total viewers, with an average of 11.8 million versus 9.3 million for second-place Fox.

This time last year, Fox was chewing up the competition, with a 4.4 rating versus a 3.1 for runners-up NBC and ABC. Fox's young-adult ratings have tumbled 23% over the past year.

So what happened?

Several factors have been pushing down Fox this season. First, "Idol" has shed viewers, even though its overall performance remains formidable. Last Tuesday's edition was the week's most-watched show, averaging 24.5 million viewers. Fox's year-ago comparisons also suffer because last season it aired the Super Bowl, which scored a record audience. This year, NBC had the game. And while Fox found at least one new show that met expectations ("Fringe"), other premieres haven't ("Dollhouse").

It's tempting to see the aftermath of the writers strike that ended a little more than a year ago as having impact too. After all, Fox clearly stood to benefit from being able in early 2008 to air original episodes of "Idol," America's No. 1 show, while rivals were forced to sideline their signature scripted shows because of the work stoppage.

If the strike did yield such an advantage, Fox has clearly lost it. Even so, however, its rivals have little to cheer about. With the exception of CBS, all the networks have posted viewing declines this season, as they have for years. Ratings-wise, the strike could be seen not so much a turning point as an accelerant to a systemwide decline.

Still, network TV gathers big audiences that cable can't; witness the 15.2 million (the vast majority of them 50+) for CBS' "Jesse Stone" Sunday movie with Tom Selleck, or about 2 1/2 times what "The Closer" did on TNT. And while it hasn't been widely noticed, long-suffering NBC has had success hanging onto adults aged 18-34, a hard-to-reach demographic whose attention bodes well for a network's future.

So now is the time when rivals should be trying to take advantage of Fox's erosion. Specifically, they need to develop shows that can attack "Idol," which has almost completely dominated midweek programming since 2003, sparking envy and fear among competitors, but which now seems to be in the early stages of its journey toward obsolescence.

Unless, of course, "Idol" defies conventions yet again and wages a massive ratings comeback. In which case the other networks will have to steel themselves to be bullied all over again.

-- Scott Collins