Only CBS has managed to grow its audience base for prime-time shows this season, and at 3 per cent its increase is modest. News Corp's Fox, Walt Disney Co's ABC, and General Electric Co's NBC have all seen troubling audience declines of 6 per cent to 20 per cent.
Those figures, coupled with budget cutbacks by advertisers, particularly retailers and automakers, have set the stage for a rough dealmaking season for the networks.
Last year, the so-called upfront period – which occurs after the broadcast networks unveil their pilots each spring – resulted in about $9 billion (D33 billion) worth of ad deals being struck.
Those numbers won't hold up this year, according to a number of Madison Avenue executives, including Steve Lanzano, chief operating officer of French advertising group Havas SA's MPG North America.
``There's no way around it,'' said Lanzano. ``We need eyeballs. That's our currency.''
One tactic ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox could employ: Hold back some commercial inventory in hopes that the lower supply will underpin prices.
The risk is if the economy worsens, that would leave the networks no choice but to deeply discount prices to move excess inventory in the spot market later in the year.
CBS took that approach in the upfronts of 2001. But when the September 11 attacks further undercut the economy and advertising later that year, the network struggled to hold pricing for its leftover inventory.
'THAT'S NOT A GOOD SIGN'
One early measure of how national prime-time advertising is softening is the number of advertisers now backing out of commitments they made in last year's upfront market.
Most contracts are structured to allow advertisers the option of dropping up to 50 per cent of the commercial time they bought for the spring. Recently, those options were being exercised at a relatively brisk rate.
``As a bellwether, that's not a good sign,'' said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media.
General Motors Corp, for instance, is said to have canceled large chunks of the commercial time it bought during the May 2008 upfronts.
Even network executives, hesitant to show their hand with millions dollars of advertising sales at stake, concede that the TV market is wilting.
Disney's finance chief, Tom Staggs, earlier this month said ABC's cancellations for the spring were above normal but had not risen ``to the extent that we are alarmed.''
Still, he said: ``No question it's a soft ad market.''
What advertisers do with the money they save with cancellations could foretell the direction of the upfronts for the 2009-2010 TV season.
``The question is how much are they reinvesting back into TV? Did people take the money back and put it in other media? Did they keep it? Or did they reinvest it in other parts of TV?'' said Lanzano
FEW NEW HITS
One reason for the low TV ratings was the absence of new hits other than CBS's crime drama ``The Mentalist.'' Experts blame a number of issues for the dismal showing, but all say a 14-week screenwriters' strike last winter made matters worse.
The coming weeks could bring more audience pleasers, since most studios have now recovered from the strike. Shows like Fox's ``Dollhouse,'' ABC's ``The Unusuals'' and NBC's ``Kings'' have already picked up buzz.
``Erosion for the most part will continue, but there could be some shows that spike,'' predicted Shelley Watson, director of entertainment at ad agency RPA.
Watson and others also point out that the big four networks will also have an easier time when it comes to comparing audience ratings against those of a year ago, when viewership sank like a rock because of the strike.
``Go back 30 years, you can count the times on one hand when viewing share go up for the networks from the previous year,'' said Horizon's Adgate.
Fox's blockbuster ``American Idol'' is back, too, and once more chalking up big ratings as the perfect counterbalance to worries over job losses, foreclosure and dismal 401K statements.
``I'm not sure a down market means doom and gloom,'' said RPA's Watson. ``A down market could just be a down market.''
That may be all ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS can hope for.