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Networks Have a Sinking Feeling

Three weeks into the new broadcast season, the networks are seeing across-the-board drops in ratings, with the exception of ABC and Fox, which has had a pleasant October surprise in this year's Major League Baseball playoffs (see story, page 11).

ABC has reason to be encouraged, although, by the middle of last week, baseball's surge had whittled the net's 5% gain in adults 18-49 down to a flat year-to-year performance. October will be telling for ABC as it tries to keep its performance up now that all the posthumous episodes of John Ritter's 8 Simple Rules have aired. Expect new episodes of the show, dealing with Ritter's character Paul Hennessey's untimely death, in time for November sweeps.

Both The WB and UPN are dealing with year-to-year declines as usage erodes among their key adults 18-34 demographic. Although overall usage is down this year by 1% in viewers, usage was down 9% among males 18-34 last week and 5% in adults 18-34.

As a result of erosion and a weaker performance than last year on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, The WB is down 25% season-to-date in adults 18-34 and 13% in viewers. On Tuesday, Gilmore Girls at 8 p.m. ET is off 36% year-to-year, while new drama One Tree Hill at 9 p.m. is underperforming Smallville in that spot by 74%, which would be more eye-popping if the numbers weren't so small to start with. And on Wednesday, Smallville's premiere was down 24% from the first hour of last year's two-hour Dawson's Creek opening; Smallville showed growth in its second week. Angel, starting its sixth year, is holding its own at 9 p.m.

With the loss of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UPN is down 21% in adults 18-34 and 18% in viewers. UPN's Monday comedies are flat, but the net is off 15% on Buffy-less Tuesdays and 13% on Wednesdays, including an 18% erosion in Star Trek: Enterprise.

Meanwhile, NBC is down 10% in adults 18-49, while CBS has dropped 14% in the demo. In adults 25-54, NBC is down 9%; CBS, off 8%. Overall, NBC is down 10% in viewers, while CBS has seen much less overall erosion at 2%.

The first night to see some tweaking is Friday, predicted to be a battleground night. NBC was the first to move, bumping new drama Miss Match to 9 from 8 p.m. to get it away from CBS's Joan of Arcadia, which attracts a similar demo. NBC is trying different lead-ins to see whether they can boost the show's ratings, which is third in adults 18-49. A repurposed episode of Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy led into Miss Match last week; Dateline will be the lead-in for the next two weeks.

In an effort to protect critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged Boomtown from baseball, NBC has pulled it for at least three weeks. But the network plans to bring the show back, according to a spokeswoman. In the meantime, NBC will repeat Law & Order: SVU in its old 10 p.m. slot to try a better lead-out for Miss Match.