ABC Tuesday claimed victory among the broadcast networks in the 1994-95 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 primetime’s biggest winner. Nothing supports the point as eloquently as a comparison of the 10 most popular shows of this season versus those of a decade ago.
The top show for the 1985-85 season was “Dynasty” followed by “Dallas.” Other viewer favorites were “The A-Team,” “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest.”
The time warp is a quality warp. The sophistication of this year’s top10 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 are already distracted by cable television.
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, versus 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.
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 firstplace, but ended this season in thirdplace overall, without the benefit of the Winter Olympics. CBS’s 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.