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Earlier this week, long-languishing NBC ordered a fall sitcom with an apt title: "Save Me."
As they get ready to roll out their fall lineups this week in New York, rival networks know the feeling. TV executives are scrambling to counter steep drop-offs among young-adult viewers and some record-low series ratings this spring.
Fox's once-dominant singing show "American Idol" has seen ratings tumble by nearly 30 percent to its lowest totals since summer 2002, according to Nielsen. Of the Top 10 programs this season among total viewers, not a single freshman series makes the cut. And for viewers ages 18 to 49 - the category most advertisers care about - the only first-season shows to attain hit status are CBS' raunchy sitcom "2 Broke Girls" and Fox's singing contest "The X Factor" - both barely scraping under the wire at Nos. 9 and 10 respectively.
Despite the troubling signs, the big networks are still projected to fetch a record $9.5 billion with advance ad sales this summer, when up to 85 percent of the commercials are sold, according to a Barclays estimate. Even though network viewing has been on the wane for years, broadcast TV is still the last bastion of the mass audience, a forum around which millions of Americans can be reached by advertisers.
But experts believe the networks are jeopardizing their futures by failing to deliver programs that appeal to fickle young viewers distracted by tablets, smartphones, social media and other demands on their attention.
"In the 18 to 49 category, there are more and more choices," said Bill Carroll, vice president at Katz Television Group, which helps advise local TV stations. "Younger viewers are watching programs on the Internet or watching on cable."
It's hardly all gloom for the old TV networks. Nielsen has for the last few years included time-shifted viewing on DVRs in the ultimate ratings totals, and the audience measure giant is beginning to lump in online and video-on-demand services as well.
"You can't read the next day's (ratings) numbers and take a real meaningful read from them anymore," CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl said in a phone interview. Executives now often wait for data that show how many people watched a program on a DVR up to seven days after the original broadcast.
CBS, No. 1 among all viewers thanks to durable scripted hits such as "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory," predicted earlier this month that it will break financial records in 2012, thanks partly to growing revenue from online distribution of its shows on platforms such as Amazon.com and Netflix. That's true even though CBS has long had the oldest-skewing audience of any broadcaster.
In addition to "2 Broke Girls," the first-year drama "Person of Interest" has delivered encouraging ratings, and Ashton Kutcher successfully replaced Charlie Sheen on "Two and a Half Men."
Among the five major broadcast networks, CBS gained 3 percent more viewers in 18 to 49 compared with last season. NBC also posted a gain, but without the Super Bowl it would be flat. Meanwhile, the others were all either even or down, with Fox falling off by 9 percent, and the CW dropping 11 percent. And since January, many of the ratings results have been even worse.
Broadcasters have been relieved to see a slowdown in the once-torrid growth pace for rival cable networks, which are free of many of the content and language restrictions under which the big networks labor. The broadcast channels are plumping their balance sheets by squeezing in more commercials.
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox averaged 11 minutes of ad time per evening hour this season (not including promotions and station IDs), translating into two more 30-second spots each hour than a decade ago, according to Horizon Media in New York.
But the flight of young viewers has become an object for concern for many TV executives. Nowhere is that more true than at NBC. The network has slumped to last place in recent seasons and is heavily dependent on costly NFL games for ratings. Without football this season, NBC's prime-time lineup would have sunk beneath a 2.0 rating among adults ages 18 to 49, which roughly translates into 2.5 million viewers - a once-unthinkable signpost of drought.
Comcast, the cable behemoth that bought the network from GE last year, has undertaken a rebuilding campaign, but the results have been slow in coming. The season premiere of NBC's singing show "The Voice" drew a huge audience of 37 million following the Super Bowl this year. But ratings subsequently drooped and this week's finale logged 11.9 million, only a modest gain over last summer's first-season farewell.
With last fall's lineup tanking, NBC got an early start this week on the sweepstakes for September by ordering six comedies plus several new dramas, including "Revolution," a new sci-fi drama from writer-producer J.J. Abrams, and a drama about Chicago firefighters. The network will need a large arsenal, because it remains weak on Wednesday and Thursday nights - the latter a high-stakes arena where ad spending is particularly high. NBC executives declined requests for comment.
ABC is in better shape, thanks to "Dancing With the Stars" and its sitcom smash "Modern Family." The fantasy "Once Upon a Time," wrapping up its first season, has also shown promise.
But the Disney-owned network has shown zero overall improvement among young adults this season, with "Dancing" much more popular among middle-aged and elderly viewers, and its once-hot medical drama "Grey's Anatomy" continuing to age.
Fox still leads in the 18 to 49 category but has nevertheless slogged through a rocky season. In addition to "Idol's" ratings swoon, "The X Factor" was widely considered a disappointment, even though it helped prop up the network's fall ratings - a longtime trouble spot.
The broadcasters have spent much of the last 25 years trying to woo young adults, and it's anyone's guess whether the recent declines in their network viewing are permanent.
"The networks," Spero added, "are falling down in the area where they need to be strong: content, content, content."