Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Big Three's Prime-Time Decline: A Technological and Social Context

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Big Three's Prime-Time Decline: A Technological and Social Context

Article excerpt

In the past 25 years, the Big Three broadcast television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, have experienced a significant decline in the share of the prime-time viewing audience. In 1980, more than 90% of television viewers were tuned in to one of these three networks during prime time. By 2005, the season ending average prime-time share of the Big Three networks had fallen to 32%. This means that during the 2004-2005 television season, fewer than one in three households using television during prime time were tuned to ABC, CBS, or NBC (Head, Sterling, & Schofield, 1984, p. 105; Nielsen Media Research, 2005; Owen & Wildman, 1992).

Explanations for the decline vary. In the early 1990s, network executives denied that a change in viewing was taking place. Instead, they insisted that Nielsen's new PeopleMeter was underestimating the size of network audiences (Piirto, 1993). The more common explanation for the decline of Big Three network shares of the television viewers was competition for viewers from new cable networks, new broadcast networks, and home viewing of VCR/DVDs (Carman, 1999; Carter, 1992; Dimmick, 2003; Henke & Donohue, 1989; Kaplan, 1978; Krugman & Rust, 1987, 1993; Lin, 1994; Ross, 1999). The penetration of remote control devices into the majority of television households during this time period also made it easier for viewers to casually surf through the new channels (Ferguson, 1994). In addition to these technological explanations, one might also ask about the social changes that accompanied the technological changes (Parsons, 2003).

This paper is an analysis of technological and social factors associated with the 25-year decline in the prime-time shares of the top three broadcast television networks.

The Substitution Hypothesis

The decline of the Big Three's prime-time shares indicates that those using television during prime-time are watching less ABC, CBS, and NBC programming, and are instead viewing more programming offered via other television sources, discussed below, such as: new broadcast networks; new networks available exclusively on multichannel video program distributors (MVPD) such as cable television, DBS, and home satellite dishes (HSD); or videocassettes/DVDs (FCC, 2006; Krugman & Rust, 1987, 1993; Lin, 1994).

Over the same period that broadcast shares have fallen, new broadcast networks have been established: Fox; ION Television Network, formerly PAX TV; CW Network, formerly WB and UPN; and MyNetworkTV, formerly News Corporation-owned UPN stations that were stranded by the UPN-WB merger (Romano, 2006a; Seid, 2006). These new networks earned a season-ending average 16 share in 2004-2005, which represents half the 32 share of the Big Three networks (Nielsen Media Research, 2005). Among Spanish-language viewers, Telemundo, Univision, and Azteca have also become formidable competitors to the Big Three (Romano, 2005).

Cable television, in combination with other multiple video program distribution (MVPD) providers such as DBS, has been growing steadily since 1980, and in 2005 reached over 85% of television households (FCC, 2006). Among subscription-based MVPD sources, cable television has dominated. Cable penetration, measured as the percentage of U.S. television households with cable, has increased from just over 20% of households in 1980 to just over 60% in 2005 (Brown, 2004; FCC, 2006). Both cable and the VCR have displaced broadcast television on the time spent dimension (Dimmick, 2003).

The growth in cable penetration accelerated following the FCC's 1972 Open Skies order, the production of affordable downlink dishes by Scientific Atlanta, and the growth in program providers such as Home Box Office and Ted Turner's Superstation, later called WTBS (Parsons, 2003). As more cable networks were born, cable started to differentiate itself from broadcast TV, and became the "television of abundance" (Bates & Chambers, 2004). …

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