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TV Network Executives Facing Grim Reality

CNN recently featured an Associated Press story entitled "where have all the viewers gone?" -- to highlight the latest assessment of the U.S. consumer growing disinterest in network television. This isn't a new story, of course, but the media sector's reluctant acknowledgment of the trend is what's really newsworthy.

In American TV's worst spring in recent memory, a startling number of Americans drifted away from television the past two months: More than 2.5 million fewer people were watching ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox than at the same time last year, statistics show. Everyone has a theory to explain the plummeting ratings: early Daylight Savings Time, more reruns, bad shows (most likely, IMHO), more shows being recorded or downloaded or streamed.

Perhaps the trend could become the basis for a new "reality show" about troubled network TV executives competing for survival. Scariest of all for the networks, however, is the idea that many people are now making their own television schedules. The industry isn't fully equipped to keep track of them, and as a result the networks are scrambling to hold on to the nearly $8.8 billion they collected during last spring's ad-buying season.

The viewer plunge couldn't have come at a worse time for the networks -- next week they will showcase their fall schedules to advertisers in the annual "up front" presentations. The networks argue that viewership is changing, not necessarily declining.

Some advertisers respond that they are no longer willing to pay full price up-front to reach viewers that may not tune in later. The implication: could it be that consumer product marketers are questioning the rationale of their leap-of-faith investment in TV advertising?

More bad news abounds. NBC set a record last month for its least-watched week during the past 20 years, and maybe ever -- then broke that record a week later. This is the least popular season ever for CBS' "Survivor." ABC's "Lost" has lost nearly half its live audience -- more than 10 million people -- from the days it was a sensation. "The Sopranos" -- a show that has earned broadcast network-like ratings in the past -- is ending on HBO, and the response is a collective yawn.

Clearly, some network TV executives still believe that they can manipulate their mass-market audience of passive viewers. "We let them get out of the habit of watching television a little bit, and it's going to take some time to get these people back in front of their television sets," said David Poltrack, chief researcher for CBS.

Other signs of continued denial -- regarding the grim reality -- are prevalent. "People are not consuming less television, they're watching it in different ways, and the measurements haven't caught up," said Alan Wurtzel, chief research executive at NBC.

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