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Networks favor buzz-creating shows

Content not enough anymore to keep loyal viewers attracted to programs

Phil Rosenthal Chicago Tribune

CBS announced last week that it is pulling the plug on “Guiding Light” in September after 57 years on TV, and 15 years before that on radio.

The daytime drama is an institution, yet the ax long was poised to fall.

Despite a production overhaul that gave “Light” a more realistic feel, one-quarter fewer women age 18 to 49 – the target demographic – are watching it compared to 12 months ago, and overall viewership is off 18 percent.

All told, the show is averaging just 2.17 million viewers.

Two days before CBS’ announcement that it was washing its hands of the Procter & Gamble-owned soap, New York Times ran a story on rising Fox News Channel star Glenn Beck.

“Barely two months into his job at Fox, his program is a phenomenon,” it said. “It typically draws about 2.3 million viewers.”

The chasm between failure and phenom is far wider than the couple hundred thousand viewers – and three letters – that separate “GL” and Glenn.

Numbers still matter in media, just not the same numbers – and buzz often translates to biz.

“Everything has become hypertargeted,” says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media.

“There are a lot of different water-cooler shows for a lot of different ages, and certain people will talk about certain shows. Men and women of various age groups and various ethnic groups talking about the same show doesn’t happen anymore.

“Even ‘American Idol’ is down,” Adgate continued. “And there’s not a show that does more than 20 million anymore except ‘American Idol’ or maybe ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ depending on the night, and 20 million people sounds big, but that’s only 6 (percent) or 7 percent of the country.”

The laws of physics don’t change: Mass times acceleration still equals force.

But with audiences splintering across an ever-widening spectrum of content, individual mass media outlets simply don’t have as much mass as they used to, leaving acceleration to pick up the slack – and it’s the speed with which word of that content travels rather than the content itself that creates the impact.

Between its multiple runs on Comedy Central and Internet streams, only a few million people actually saw Jon Stewart’s takedown of CNBC’s Jim Cramer. But the interview was blogged, flogged and discussed almost everywhere.

Media people pay more attention to “The Daily Show” than, say, ABC’s “Supernanny,” even though “Supernanny” has three times as big an audience, because “The Daily Show” talks about them. When you wonder why so much attention is paid to cable news in the press, consider what’s seen on most newsroom TVs.

Beck is in ascendance because people are talking about him and his show – with a write-up in the Times both following and fueling the trend – and because, as the story notes, he is now cable news’ third most popular host after Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

A show atop its genre, or at least near it, can help shape its market, but “Light” is the least-watched of the eight soaps on network TV, well beneath CBS’ top-rated “The Young and the Restless” and its 5.26 million viewers.

ABC’s “General Hospital” and NBC’s “Days of Our Lives” also have fewer than 3 million, but their audiences are younger and more attractive to advertisers.

“Light” has its own devoutly faithful followers, to be sure, although that number has declined.

When it comes to daytime drama, people are far more likely to be talking about the latest blowup on ABC’s “The View,” which averages 4.25 million viewers.

The final episode of “Cheers” 16 years ago drew 80.4 million viewers. The last “Friends” five years ago had 52.5 million viewers.

Thursday’s series finale of “ER” drew 16.4 million. Among adults age 18 to 49 – the money demographic – Advertising Age noted it did 14 percent of the business of the finale of “Cheers” and 24 percent of what “Friends” did.

Crazy as it sounds, Adgate argues these declines help networks in some ways. A marketer seeking to reach the same number of viewers as before must buy more spots, and supply and demand keep prices up.

“It can’t last forever, but it’s working for now,” he says.

In this new age, audience, circulation and page views all matter less than the revenue and brand equity they can generate.

“Light” is flickering and fading. Beck is only burning hotter.

“You could make a case,” Adgate says, “that earnings reports are as important as ratings.”

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