NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -
The critical November sweeps period for television networks is drawing to a close. But so far, there haven't been too many surprising plot twists.
CBS and ABC have built on last year's success. According to data from ratings tracker Nielsen Media Research, CBS and ABC each have five of the top 10 most-watched TV shows through mid-November.
CBS was the most watched network, according to Nielsen, but ABC was a strong No. 2, with a 6 percent increase in prime-time viewers. Ratings at Fox were a bit better than expected thanks to two new hits.
And finally, the woes for the once-mighty NBC continue. Through mid-November, average viewers at NBC were down nearly 12 percent from last year. What's more, NBC saw about a 19 percent decline in viewers between the ages of 18 to 49, a key demographic that advertisers covet.
NBC had high hopes for its Martha Stewart version of "The Apprentice" but ratings have been poor and the network has already announced that it will not produce another season of the show.
In addition, ratings for the original Donald Trump "Apprentice," now in its fourth season, have fallen dramatically. The ratings slump for this show mirrors a broad decline in ratings for NBC's Thursday night lineup as "Friends" spin-off "Joey" continues to struggle.
That's led some to speculate that NBC might consider moving its one new hit of the fall season, "My Name is Earl," from its current spot on Tuesday to Thursday.
"NBC is struggling and executives have to be disappointed. Maybe two 'Apprentice' shows were at least one too many and 'Joey' is not doing any better," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming with Katz Television Group. "The one bright spot is 'My Name is Earl' but there's not much other than that."
The so-called "sweeps" months are important for networks since they include a far more comprehensive look at demographic data for all the viewing markets in the country from Nielsen.
To that end, ratings during the sweep months of November, February and May are a strong factor in determining advertising rates for the next television season. This past spring, NBC reported a nearly 35 percent decline in ad commitments from a year ago due to its ratings problems.
Season is far from over
Still, analysts said it's still too early to declare winners and losers.
"Look at the sweeps last year. Fox lagged in ratings and still won the season so you can't put too much emphasis on November," said Brad Adgate, senior vice-president of corporate research for Horizon Media, a marketing firm.
In fact, despite the early lead for ABC and CBS, Adgate says Fox appears to be in a good position to remain on top for the full season.
He points out that two new series, "Prison Break" and "Bones," have been solid hits for the network and that ratings for medical drama "House" have been strong. Plus, Fox still has two of its biggest shows, "American Idol" and "24" ready to premiere in January.
And even NBC has a couple of likely winners -- its telecast in February of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy and then in the fall, its launch of Sunday Night Football.
Both could give NBC more bargaining power during the negotiating period for ad rates for the 2006-2007 season, said Carroll. But for long-term success, he said NBC will need to generate new hits.
"Having the Winter Olympics on the near horizon and football for the fall will help but ultimately, it is series programming that makes the difference and NBC hasn't been able to make a turnaround in that area yet," said Carroll.
So what's this all mean for the fortunes of the media companies that own the major networks?
Shares of Viacom (Research), Walt Disney (Research) and News Corp (Research), which own CBS, ABC and Fox respectively, have floundered this year on concerns about an increased move of viewers and ad dollars from traditional media outlets like television to the Web. NBC is owned by conglomerate General Electric (Research), which has also lagged the market this year.
The media giants have taken steps to try and battle the erosion of their core audience however and find new revenue streams outside of advertising. Disney has an agreement with Apple's iTunes store to sell downloads of popular shows such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" online for $1.99 an episode.
And last month, NBC and CBS both announced that they will begin selling on-demand, commercial free versions of some of their shows for 99 cents an episode through cable and satellite TV operators in early 2006.
Whether these initiatives will work for the TV networks remains to be seen, though. But Carroll said he did not expect new "on-demand" forms of watching TV shows to drastically change the television landscape in the near future.
"There is no on-demand if there is no demand," said Carroll. "If you don't have a hit, nobody is going to buy it. Nobody is going to spend $1.99 to watch something that they don't know about or don't care about."
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