In upfront presentations this week, networks touting ratings face a tough PR job. With talk about the business thriving despite challenges from the Web and elsewhere, advertisers looking under the hood may find engines still needing a jump-start.
ABC may avoid the topic altogether. With "American Idol" weakening, Fox could tap dance around the ratings issue. Even a Super Bowl-fueled CBS would have to resort to the syllogism that flat is the new up.
In C3 ratings -- the ones advertisers care most about -- the Big Four networks have hardly posted breakout numbers this season. With "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives" down, ABC has seen its C3 ratings fall 12% in the 18-to-49 demo -- from a 2.5 to a 2.2. (The C3 metric measures average commercial ratings for a live broadcast plus three days of DVR-enabled viewing.)
Using the latest figures available, Fox is down 6% -- from a 3.2 last season to a 3.0. But its numbers were lifted by a resilient World Series, a huge NFC Championship game, and the added bonus of a strong performance in the fourth quarter, where it has struggled for years.
Despite a record Super Bowl, CBS is down 4% this season from a 2.7 to a 2.6. The network has been helped by a solid first-year "Undercover Boss."
NBC is up 9% from a 2.3 to a 2.5. But that includes 17 nights of the Winter Olympics and a major bump from "Sunday Night Football." Its regular schedule continues to flounder.
At the CW, ratings in its target female 18-to-34 demo have been flat at a 1.1.
The latest C3 figures available are through April 25 of this season -- week 31 of about 35 -- and include prime-time sports events. If ratings for the Olympics and sports events were stripped out, C3 ratings would likely have dropped further since people tend to watch those live.
Still, if series finales for "Lost" and "24" perform well, that could provide some juice before the 2009-10 season concludes. Numbers for season-enders for "Idol" and "Survivor" are also coming.
In the past, networks would spend a portion of upfront gatherings showing glossy pictures with circles and arrows to brag about ratings increases. But that impulse has receded some in recent years as media buyers have requested shorter presentations.
Returning to C3 for this season, there have been similar results for total viewers as with 18-to-49s. CBS has seen a slight drop from a 10.3 million average a year ago to 10 million this season, through April 25.
ABC, which has a first-year hit in "Modern Family," is down 8% to 7.4 million. Fox has dropped 7% to 8.8 million. NBC's viewership jumped 18% to 7.9 million with an Olympic flame.
Separately, a look at the C3 ratings provides some insight into the level of commercial-skipping that networks are grappling with. By one measure in the 18-to-49 demo, the C3 ratings at CBS are down 19% compared to the total prime-time average.
The result is the same at Fox and ABC. Fox has a 3.7 in total, but a 3.0 in C3, down 19%. And ABC is down 19% from a 2.7 to a 2.2.
NBC has dropped 11%, which could have been worse without the Olympics.