Twilight of the Networks?

Railroads once defined the US transportation industry, but by the late 20th century, they were all but obsolete, having succumbed to competition from airlines and trucking companies. Television networks may be headed for a similar fate, having lost 18% of the summer audience to cable channels.

Traditional TV networks have been gradually losing viewers since the advent of cable in the early 1970s, but the rate of attrition has grown with the proliferation of independent programming available on cable channels such as HBO, ShowTime, and Discovery. The "Big Four"—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—were able to staunch the hemorrhage this year by slowing the decline to a mere 2% loss. Increasing competition from cable channels, DVD, and other forms of entertainment, has hammered networks' viewership despite this summer's all-time high of new productions. American Idol was the surprise hit this year; without it, the ratings would have been even more dismal.

According to a report compiled by Turner Network Broadcasting from Nielsen Media Research data, first-run programming averaged a 4.8 household rating this summer, down from 5.2 the previous summer. Among viewers aged 18-49, the decline was 10% over last summer, according to an August 28 report by Andrew Wallenstein in the Hollywood Reporter.

The erosion of network's dominance is reflected in advertising sales statistics. Ad sales in general are on the rebound, according to an August 30 report by Jesse Hiestand in the same publication. In the first half of the year, total advertising spending in the US rose 6.8%, hitting $61.7 billion, with $31.3 billion of that pegged for broadcasting. Print advertising grew 8.6% to $25.9 billion, while Internet and outdoor advertising increased 15.3% and 5.3%, respectively.

The dark cloud amid all this sunshine: network broadcasting. Apart from Spanish language broadcasters, who enjoyed an appreciable increase, network television suffered an ad sales decline in the first half of the year, down 0.4% to $10.3 billion. The networks, and the cablers, are also feeling the heat from direct broadcast satellite, which in late August announced that the combined subscribership of DirecTV and Dish Network had exceeded 20 million for the first time. DBS now serves 20.36 million people, or one in five US homes.