Broadcast networks holding their own

Three major nets attracting bigger audiences than last year

Five weeks into the new 2009-10 television season, three of the four major U.S. networks are seeing surprisingly bigger audiences than last year and fewer embarrassing flops.

Networks are pulling in guest stars including Jimmy Fallon, Heather Locklear and Mandy Patinkin to boost ratings, and NBC is taking its "The Biggest Loser" weight loss show to the White House for November sweeps, a key period that began on Thursday in which ratings are used to set local advertising rates.

Media-watchers say the big story of the season so far is the rise of News Corp's Fox, up 3% in total viewers thanks largely to its new musical comedy "Glee" and the strength of medical drama "House," now in its sixth season.

"Fox is used to being badly beaten in the fall and leaving everyone in the dust in the spring when (No. 1-rated) 'American Idol' kicks in. But they are the only broadcaster that is up in all demographics and categories," said Bill Gorman, co-editor of Web site

CBS Corp. has bolstered its position as America's most popular network with 13 of the Top 20 programs, including its three "CSI" crime dramas and new "NCIS: Los Angeles."

Calling total network viewership so far "encouraging," Barclay's Capital in research this week forecast an estimated 5% increase in network advertising revenue for CBS in calendar year 2010, and about 2% sales growth for Fox.

Only Walt Disney Co's ABC is down, losing 6% of its overall viewers after overhauling its fall line-up with an ambitious slate of 11 new dramas and comedies.

ABC's search for new hits has yet to pay off, and audiences have slipped for its well-entrenched hit, "Dancing with the Stars."

Fox has put its more youth-oriented "So You Think You Can Dance" in head-to-head competition with "Dancing," and came a close second in the 18-49 age group coveted by advertisers.

Meanwhile NBC, a unit of General Electric Co's NBC Universal media wing, is still struggling to get out of fourth place and is up only slightly in overall viewers.

The network's widely watched move of comedian Jay Leno's talk show to a new 10 p.m. prime-time hour from late night has drawn only about 5 million viewers weekly, which is less than half the audience for rival dramas at 10 p.m.

Still, "it's doing better than we projected we'd do," NBC entertainment chairman Marc Graboff told reporters last week.

The major networks have canceled only a handful of shows. NBC has ended police series "Southland," and the network's costly but low-rated rescue series "Trauma" will not be revived after its current 13-episode order. The CW network's newcomer "The Beautiful Life" about aspiring models was axed, too.