TV Ratings: Detailed Analysis

The race for ratings among the four top U.S. television networks has turned into a tooth and claw battle, with NBC at risk of losing the top spot as ABC makes a surprise comeback, according to media experts.

At stake are billions of dollars in advertising.

NBC, the General Electric Co. unit that has held sway at No. 1 for nearly a decade, has failed this season to find strong replacements for recently departed sitcom stalwarts “Friends” and “Frasier.” Meanwhile, ABC, the long-time ratings laggard owned by Walt Disney Co., surprised with two new hit dramas — “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” — in the first month of the 2004-05 season.

Coupled with steady progress by CBS in the battle for viewers aged 18 to 49 — the audience group most prized by advertisers — the prime-time ratings derby has become more of a three-way game, media buyers and network executives said.

“It’s the most interesting race for the four networks in years,” said Kelly Kahl, programming chief at Viacom-owned CBS, whose success has hinged largely on its popular “CSI” crime drama franchise. “It’s going to be a dogfight all year.”

NBC led advance commercial sales for the season earlier this year, with nearly $3 billion in commitments versus $2.4 billion for CBS and about $1.6 billion each for Fox and ABC.

The bookings were largely based on prior season rankings, with NBC on top, closely followed by Fox and CBS. For the first four weeks of this season, however, CBS, NBC and ABC are running neck and neck, with a slight advantage to CBS, according to ratings tracking firm Nielsen Media Research.

Network television commands the largest share of U.S. advertising spending by capturing the biggest audiences, even as companies pour more of their budgets into cable and the Internet to reach consumers.

“Everyone expected it would be a close race this season between NBC and CBS. But when you add two shows as big as this (on ABC), there is absolutely a new perspective on where you’re going to end up,” NBC ratings chief Tom Bierbaum said.

ABC languished in third or fourth place in the last four broadcast seasons. But “Desperate Housewives,” a new prime-time soap opera about suburban wives gone wild, has emerged as the highest-rated new series on television this season.

It ranks as the third most watched program in prime time overall and is No. 2 among 18- to 49-year-old viewers. “Lost,” about a group of plane-crash survivors marooned on a tropical island with a mysterious man-eating monster, ranks ninth overall in viewership and No. 10 in the key 18-49 demographic.

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Credit: Reuters/Yahoo