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Prime time TV loses viewers, especially young adults

By Bill Carter
New York Times / April 23, 2012
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NEW YORK - It is the police procedural that has network executives scratching their heads this season: The Case of the Disappearing Viewers.

Across the television landscape, network and cable, public television and pay cable, English-language and Spanish, viewing for all sorts of prime time programming is down this spring - chiefly among the most important audience for the business, younger adults.

In the four television weeks starting March 19, NBC lost an average of 59,000 viewers (about 3 percent) in that 18-to-49 age category, compared with the same period last year. CBS lost 239,000 (8 percent), ABC lost 681,000 (21 percent), and Fox lost 709,000 (20 percent).

In the past few weeks, new viewership lows for network series have been recorded nightly among 18-to-49-year-olds, the group that still commands the highest advertising prices. And the declines have not discriminated. The bad news has been the same for hits, like ABC’s “Modern Family,’’ which had its lowest rating for the season (4.0 or about 5.2 million viewers) and less popular shows, like NBC’s “Awake,’’ which descended to 0.8 (slightly more than 1 million viewers).

The losses could not have come at a worse time for the networks, which are about to enter the season when advertising dollars are committed for the fall season.

Though there seems to be no one reason for the decline, many executives say they are concerned that long-term changes in watching habits are taking a significant toll.

Network television, of course, is accustomed to being down. As noted by Michael Nathanson, the US media analyst for Nomura Securities, the live ratings for network programs (that is, the ratings for people who watch shows when they are first broadcast) have declined for 14 straight quarters.

In the past, the network drop usually meant a bonanza for cable networks, which inherited the former network viewers. But over the same four weeks beginning in March, cable networks combined lost an average of 409,000 viewers, about 2 percent. Yet overall television viewing is flat this spring, according to Nielsen.

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