A collective sigh of grief for networks

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And broadcasters thought last season, the one with the WGA strike, was tough.

At the close of the 2008- 09 season, which officially ended Wednesday, the major networks' ratings were down a collective 16% from the 2007-08 campaign.

Fox won the season in the adults 18-49 demographic, averaging 9.8 million viewers and a 3.6 demo rating in the "most current" Nielsen Media Research figures, which include DVR use. CBS won in total viewers, averaging 11.8 million, and was the runner-up with a 3.1 in 18-49.

The win marks Fox's fifth consecutive season victory in the demo. But the network dropped most among the Big Four compared with last season — 13% in total viewers and 16% in the demo — mainly because it did not have the Super Bowl and because of softening ratings for "American Idol," television's most popular show.

CBS was the only network to gain a larger audience this season, up 11% in viewers and 3% in the demo. Its gains were aided by new drama "The Mentalist" on Tuesday nights, which were up 33% in the demo this season.

ABC placed third (9 million, 2.9), falling 3% in both metrics because of ratings slippage by its popular scripted dramas.

NBC was fourth (7.8 million, 2.8), dropping 3% in viewers and posting a flat rating compared with last season. The network had this year's Super Bowl, though, and fell 8% in adults 18-49 without factoring in sports coverage. NBC was hardest-hit on Wednesdays (-26%) and Fridays (-29%) but showed gains on Tuesdays (9%) with "The Biggest Loser."

The CW (2 million, 0.9), whose rankings were not factored into the major-network comparisons, suffered the harshest percentage drops: 22% in viewers and 18% in the demo. Among its target demographic of women 18-34, though, the CW was unchanged (1.4 rating). The network's standings improve further by taking off the board Sundays, where the CW fell 25% this season after outsourcing its programming.

The season's final night was won, appropriately, by "Idol," which wrapped its eighth campaign with its lowest demo rating for a finale. The two-hour-plus Wednesday extravaganza — featuring performances by Kiss, Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Steve Martin and the surviving members of Queen — drew 28.8 million viewers and a 10.0 rating in adults 18-49. It peaked at 34 million viewers during the final half-hour countdown to Kris Allen's upset victory.

Those would be astonishing numbers for any other series. For the "Idol" juggernaut, though, they are good only for last place in the demo among its finales — behind the Season 1 ender, when an average of 23 million viewers (10.8/30 in 18-49) tuned in to see Kelly Clarkson crowned as the first American Idol. (In total viewers, this finale ranked second-to-last, surpassing the first-season closer.)

Compared with last year's results finale, "Idol" was down 12% in adults 18-49 and 9% in viewers. That follows similar all-time lows for its final performance show Tuesday.

Fox notes that "Idol" has dominated its competition this season by a wider margin of victory than ever before. "Idol" finished the season 72% ahead of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," the No. 2 entertainment program in the 18-49 demo. The Tuesday and Wednesday "Idol" editions have ranked first or second for six consecutive seasons, the most consecutive No. 1 rankings for a broadcast-network program since Nielsen began its continuous adult-demo measurement more than 20 years ago.

Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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