NEW YORK (AP) – With nearly 30 million people watching the “American Idol” finale on Fox, broadcast television networks ended a season that gave everybody something to brag about – except NBC.

CBS can again claim the status of the nation’s most popular network. Perhaps more significant financially, its viewership increased among young people.

For the first time since beginning a prime-time schedule in 1987, Fox was the No. 1 network among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers that broadcasters crave.

ABC launched a comeback that probably exceeded the dreams of even its most optimistic executives, seeing its viewership increase by 12 percent overall and 17 percent among the 18-to-49 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research figures released Thursday.

And NBC? Well, there’s always next year – a winter Olympics year. NBC ended the season in an unprecedented fourth place among overall and young viewers.

The broadcast networks in general had virtually the same number of prime-time viewers this season than they had in 2003-04, which is significant because viewership had dropped steadily, every year, since the 1993-94 season.

Fans embraced new programming this year, a particularly encouraging sign for network executives. The 25 most-watched prime-time shows this season included six new series: “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC; “House” on Fox; “Medium” on NBC and “CSI: NY” on CBS.

“The networks were where the hot programming was this year,” said David Poltrack, chief researcher at CBS.

With no new episodes of “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City” this season, cable networks lost some of their cutting edge, he said.

But Jack Wakshlag, chief researcher at the Turner Networks, said cable networks continue to increase their share of the prime-time audience.

“There literally are more people spending more time watching television than a year ago,” he said. “But they’re not watching more broadcast television.”

It’s more than a battle over numbers for these executives. Ad agencies are expected to place orders for more than $18 billion in advertising for the fall season over the next few weeks, and dozens of networks are scratching for every dime.

Industry analyst Jack Myers said the broadcast networks will benefit from a high “buzz factor” this year, keeping money that might have otherwise shifted to cable.

“I think that cable will grow organically,” Myers said. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of money going out of broadcast and into cable. I don’t see that as much as the cable industry would like to.”

For the second straight year, the most popular program on television was the Tuesday edition of “American Idol” (27.3 million viewers), followed by CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (26.6 million). After the Wednesday “Idol” edition, “Desperate Housewives” was next.

CBS averaged 12.9 million viewers in prime-time this year. ABC and Fox were in a flat-footed tie for second with 10 million viewers, followed by NBC at 9.8 million. The WB and UPN both averaged 3.3 million viewers.

NBC was down 11 percent among viewers and 16 percent among the young demographic. That latter drop, in particular, threatens its longstanding position as the network that earns the most advertising revenue during this “upfront” buying season.

NBC can take some comfort over the remarkable tightness of the network competition. Only six-tenths of one rating point separated first from fourth among 18-to-49-year-old viewers, and it’s even closer considering Fox’s numbers were inflated this year by the Super Bowl.

Any network that can repeat ABC’s feat of minting new hits next year stands the chance of making a big move.


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