WHERE have the network television audiences gone? According to Nielsen Media Research, there were 9 percent fewer eyeballs trained on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC shows in April and so far in May than at the same time last year.
If you're a network boss trying to generate excitement about the fall television schedule, news about a sharp tumble in audience share couldn't have come at a worse time.
"Free" television has always been subsidized by advertisers. Networks establish how much to charge for commercials based on the number of viewers they can deliver per program.
Some of the profit is plowed back into the development of new shows that will be used to attract a bigger audience and more advertisers.
This has been the business model since the medium's inception.
The problem today is that even popular shows like Desperate Housewives, Deal or No Deal, Grey's Anatomy, and American Idol have begun to feel the sting of viewer indifference and changing habits.
If Survivor can't muster an immunity challenge from declining audience share and CSI: Miami performs as if it should be renamed D.O.A., then things will probably get worse before they get better at the networks.
The television writers' strike of 2007-08 is only partly responsible for the loss of audience the networks have experienced.
The networks' loss has been cable television's gain. Non-network shows like Mad Men and Damages have benefited from the willingness of frustrated viewers to explore the wider universe of cable offerings. Cable shows on FX and AMC have seen their audiences grow.
Without Lost or House around to reinforce an addiction to network programming, viewers were free to explore social networks on computers, video games, and interests completely unrelated to what used to be known as the "idiot box."
Digital video recorders are also more prevalent than they were a year ago. Freed from the tyranny of the network schedule, viewers can watch their favorite programs without regard to the original broadcast time. This undercuts the networks' ability to guarantee an audience of live eyeballs for advertisers.
It could be the end of television as we knew it. The irony is that, just as TV screens are getting bigger, the audience for the networks is going the other way.