Networks sweat the sweep

Migration to cable, DVR leaves broadcasters frowning

May sweep ratings are telling broadcasters an alarming story: Since April 24, the five major networks are down an average of 21% in the key adult 18-49 demographic compared with last year. Even the season's ratings champ Fox has dropped 11%.

Yet the situation for overall television viewing is strikingly more optimistic. The number of people using TV has actually increased -- up 1%.

So why are the most-watched networks suffering record low ratings when TV is being watched by more people?

Two reasons emerge from the Nielsen data: Ad-supported cable during the May sweep is up 14% in the demo compared with last year, meaning some viewers migrated to such shows as MTV's "The Hills" and TNT's NBA playoffs during the past couple of weeks.

Also, DVR use climbed yet another percentage point last week to a 24% market penetration (compared with 15% last year), resulting in fewer viewers watching broadcast shows live and thus being tallied in the usual same-day ratings.

The results echo a current mantra in the industry: that the broadcast ratings erosion is because of viewers watching more channels in different ways. Yet seldom has the supporting data seemed so stark.

Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media, said the figures suggest that viewers' annual retreat to cable during the summer started earlier this year thanks to the writers strike.

"Broadcasters went into summer mode during the strike by putting on reality and repeats, so the viewers sampled all these cable shows they didn't watch before," he said. "Television shows are habit forming, and now some viewers haven't come back."

The data also is reassuring, however. Another broadcast mantra has been that viewers are spending more time online and playing video games instead of watching TV. Yet the overall sweep-audience increase of 1% is consistent over the past few months, suggesting that viewers are consuming more network programming despite engaging in other distractions.

For the first full week of sweep data, Fox won its 17th consecutive week in the demo. The controversy over "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul critiquing a contestant's performance that never aired did not seem to impact the show's ratings, with the reality hit continuing to decline only a tick (Wednesday's episode was seen by 22.8 million viewers and earned an 8.4 adults 18-49 rating and a 21 share). Yet Tuesday "Idol" lead-out "Hell's Kitchen" (11.9 million, 5.4/13) kept growing, last week retaining 60% of "Idol" viewers.

Fox's scripted hit "House" (14.6 million, 5.8/13) showed that even the top-rated network isn't immune to the sharp drops endured by other returning scripted shows. The series returned to original episodes in its new Monday night time period down more than 20% from its previous average.

Second-place ABC clocked four shows among the top 10 last week. "Desperate Housewives" grew slightly (16.8 million, 6.3/16), up 7% from the previous week's low performance. Yet the Thursday night doldrums continued, with "Ugly Betty" matching its previous low (7.9 million, 2.4/7), "Grey's Anatomy" dropping 6% (15.3 million, 6.1/16) and "Lost" down 11% (10.7 million, 4.7/13).

CBS was third, with "CSI" up slightly (18 million, 5.1/13) and "Two and a Half Men" (12.9 million, 4.8/11). The network tried out a "Price Is Right" primetime special (7.2 million, 1.7/5) on Wednesday only to come in last place for the hour.

NBC was fourth, topped by "Law & Order: SVU" (12.3 million, 4.1/11) and "The Office" (7.8 million, 4.0/10). The CW's second week of "Gossip Girl" (2.5 million, 1.3/3) in a new time period maintained its rating.