ABC Tuesday claimed victory among the broadcast networks in the 1994-1995 season ended Sunday. It was ABC's first win in 15 years -- but rarely has the matter of which network won or lost a television season said as little about how much the medium changed since the previous September, or about where it's headed.
Foremost, the viewer was prime-time's biggest winner. Nothing supports the point as eloquently as a comparison of the 10 most popular shows of this season vs. those of a decade ago. The time warp is a quality warp. Today's Nielsens aren't yet a meritocracy, as the poor ratings of superior shows like "Homicide," "Picket Fences," and "My So-Called Life" attest. Yet suds and worse ruled network primetime in 1984-1985, whereas the sophistication of this year's top-10 ranked "ER," and "Friends," as well as the returning "Frasier," "NYPD Blue," "Grace Under Fire" and "Seinfeld" reflect pressure on all four networks to appeal intelligently, but more importantly, narrowly, to baby-boomer audiences that are changing their watching habits that have already distracted by cable television.
Tuesday's season rankings prove it. Trailing ABC in ranking were NBC, CBS and Fox, respectively. Yet the four networks were, collectively, losers. Just 65 percent of the nation's 95.4 million TV households tuned them in during primetime, on average, vs. 69 percent last year. Excluding Fox, which began its rivals' undoing when it went on the air a decade ago, Big Three primetime viewership slid to 57 percent, its lowest ever -- significant, because network viewership had held steady against cable last year, silencing predictions that their days might be numbered.
But this year, the Big Three lost 2.2 million homes, and basic cable channels gained 1.6 million. More than a third of TV households preferred cable, which was boosted by the O. J. Simpson Trial, and the networks' loss of Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series, and their lack of a blockbuster exclusive like last year's Winter Olympics.
Ironically, the resumption of the big channel-surf away from the broadcast networks was begun by CBS, which ended last season in first-place, but ended this season in third-place overall, without the benefit of the Winter Olympics. CBS' aging shows appealed to aging audiences, leaving the network in last place behind Fox in viewership among the under-50 audiences advertisers care most about.
NBC, although barely closer to ABC than to CBS in overall ratings, established itself as the network with the most momentum entering next season, proving through a brilliant prime-time schedule that included "ER," "Friends," and "Seinfeld," the season's top show, that despite cable television only a traditional broadcast network can still grip upward of 40 million viewers throughout a whole evening of non-news television. Advertisers are impressed: upfront sales for next season on all four networks are up 20 percent over a year ago.
Fox, although still a distant fourth overall, gained by far the most viewership in overall households and among younger fans, thanks to series like "The X-Files," which gained more viewers (44 percent) in its second season than any other prime-time show. Fox still programs only 15 of 22 prime-time hours each week -- the 10 p.m. to 11 pm slot is vacant. (Fox's affiliate in Baltimore, Channel 45, airs local news in this time slot.) But the network's ratings momentum, abetted by its aggressive deployment of new TV stations and NFL football, all stolen from CBS in separate bidding wars led by Rupert Murdoch, who controls Fox, suggest that his network won't be the fourth-rated for many more seasons.
For the 1994-1995 season that began Sept. 19, ABC averaged 12.1 percent of TV households; NBC, 11.6 percent; CBS, 11.2 percent (vs. 14 percent last season) and Fox, 7.7 percent (vs. 7.2 percent last season). Among 18-49 year-old viewers, ABC averaged 7.3 percent; NBC, 6.9 percent; Fox 5.5, percent and CBS, 5.3 percent.
YEAR'S TOP 10
1. "Seinfeld" NBC
2. "ER" NBC
3. "Home Improvement" ABC
4. "Grace Under Fire" ABC
5. "Monday Night Football" ABC
6. "60 Minutes CBS
7. "NYPD Blue" ABC
8. "Friends" NBC
9. "Roseanne" ABC
10. "Murder, She Wrote" CBS