Although ad revenues for some of America's biggest TV networks may have slipped in the first quarter of 2005 [WAMN: 25-May-05], audience numbers stood firm during the season.

Preliminary data from Nielsen Media Research shows viewer numbers in the prized 18-49 age group have even risen slightly (by 17,000) reversing an eleven-season falling trend.

Up to 2.1 million viewers annually have been lost by the big four networks - ABC, CBS, Fox TV and NBC - due to the expansion of digital, cable, satellite and other media platforms.

However, with hit shows such as ABC's Desperate Housewives and the continuing success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on CBS, the networks are fighting back. Indeed, pay-channels such as HBO have seen audiences slide 12% from a year ago.

New York media analyst Tom Wolzien says cable channels have grown mainly by expanding their reach into more homes, not through the popularity of their shows. The industry cannot count on that kind of growth in the future.

This season's ratings race has been won by Fox, at least in the 18-49 demographic, helped by its Super Bowl show and American Idol. Second place in the segment is occupied by CBS, although the network leads in total viewers by a wide margin, as it has in all recent years.

At the back of the field languishes NBC, which finished the previous four seasons in first place in the 18-49 demographic. But it has suffered a 19% drop due to the departure of ratings stalwarts Friends and Frasier and couple of expensive new flops.

Says president of the NBC Universal Television Group Jeff Zucker: "We expect more from ourselves, and we know we need to do better."

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff