News Corp.’s Fox network has lost almost 17 percent of its young-adult viewers five weeks into the television season, a drop that threatens to dethrone the ratings leader after six years.
The decline has hit some of Fox’s top shows --“House” is off 34 percent and “The Simpsons” 12 percent -- leaving Fox in third place in the 18-to-49-year-old audience that advertisers target, according to Nielsen Co. data supplied by the network.
Fox led at this point last year, as Major League Baseball playoffs and shows like “House” helped build a first-half cushion over CBS Corp. That eased the pressure on “American Idol,” TV’s most-watched program, to carry Fox to victory in the second half. The talent show, which lost 9 percent of its 18-to-49 audience last season, returns in January with new faces and without Simon Cowell, changes that may test viewer loyalty.
“I would imagine that there is a lot of concern over at Fox right now,” said Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast television for Carat USA, a New York-based advertising company whose clients include Revlon Inc. and Pfizer Inc. “I’m sure they’re scrambling to figure out how to fix this.”
Fox’s decline this year is underscored by shrinking audiences for the medical show “House” and the long-running “The Simpsons.” Newer animated shows “Family Guy” and “The Cleveland Show” are down 15 percent and 31 percent respectively, according to Nielsen data.
Fox also pulled its new Monday night drama “Lone Star” after two episodes. Two new comedies, “Raising Hope” and “Running Wilde,” rank 48th and 64th among key viewers, according to Nielsen data.
The network’s retransmission dispute with Cablevision Systems Corp. is contributing to the losses. Fox cut off the pay-TV operator’s 3 million New York-area subscribers on Oct. 16. Nationally, Fox averages about 2.6 percent of the total viewers, according to Nielsen data this season.
Overall in prime time, CBS is on top year-to-date, averaging 4.4 million viewers ages 18 to 49, up almost 1 percent from a year earlier, Nielsen data show. General Electric Co.’s NBC is second with 3.75 million, a 3.9 percent increase, while Fox is third, down to 3.73 million from 4.47 million. Walt Disney Co.’s ABC is last, averaging 3.65 million viewers, a 7.6 percent decline.
Fox’s ratings were boosted last year by a special two-hour episode of “House” and American League baseball playoffs that featured the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels, Preston Beckman, executive vice president of Fox Entertainment Group, said in an interview. This year, Fox broadcast the National League series featuring teams from smaller TV markets, the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies, he said.
The network’s broadcast of baseball’s World Series this year features the Giants and the Texas Rangers, compared with last year’s contest between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies.
“We’re being punished for a great fourth quarter last year,” Beckman said. There’s still a good chance that Fox will be the top network at the end of the season because of “Idol” and the Super Bowl in February, he said.
“This is a pretty large hill for ‘American Idol’ to climb this time around,” said Brad Adgate, director of research for New York-based Horizon Media, a media buying company. The show has added two new judges, singers Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, after losing the acerbic Cowell.
A bright spot in Fox’s ratings has been continued growth for the audience of the musical comedy “Glee.” The show, now in its second year, is rated fourth among 18-to-49-year-olds with a 39 percent increase in viewers, according to the network.
To further showcase the program, Fox plans to air an episode after its Super Bowl telecast, Beckman said.
News Corp., based in New York and controlled by Rupert Murdoch, gained 1 cent to $14.32 at 4 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. The Class A shares have added 4.6 percent this year.
Fox’s ratings decline may force News Corp. to offer advertisers “make goods,” free or discounted ads that the networks hand out when ratings fall short of projections, later this year, said Doug Creutz, a San Francisco-based analyst with Cowen & Co. who has an “underperform” rating on News Corp.
“They’re probably having to make some concessions for ‘House,’” Creutz said. “Maybe others, too.”