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A rarity for major U.S. TV networks: viewership rising

Andy Fixmer

With more hit shows and surging ratings for sports and award programs, the big four U.S. broadcast TV networks are poised to increase their viewership for the first time since 2006.

The prime-time TV audience for CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC has climbed about 1 percent to more than 38.6 million viewers a night with a week left in the season, according to data from Nielsen Co. Of the four, only ABC has lost viewers and is down 3.9 percent.

The ratings, along with a recovery in local and national commercials, may herald a period of stability for broadcasters, which have lost advertisers and viewers to competing media for decades. The networks are also collecting retransmission fees from pay-TV operators for the first time, opening a new source of revenue.

Higher ratings will translate into bigger advertising sales for the 2010-11 TV season, according Barclays Capital. Advance sales for the season starting in September may jump 20 percent to $8.3 billion, Barclays estimated last month. Network ad sales declined 7.6 percent last year, according to researcher Kantar Media.

The big four drew larger audiences to the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes, according to Nielsen data. NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl attracted record audiences, and NBC's Winter Olympics averaged 24.4 million viewers.

Two years ago, viewership plunged 6.2 percent, the most in a decade, as striking writers crippled TV production. The networks have failed to regain those viewers

CBS Corp., little changed from a year ago at 11.8 million viewers nightly, will end the season as the most-watched network for a second straight season, CEO Leslie Moonves told advertisers recently.

CBS has five shows in the top 10, including "NCIS" and "The Mentalist," according to Nielsen data. The network's prime-time audience is 19 percent larger than nearest rival Fox, up 2.6 percent to 9.9 million.

News Corp.'s Fox is poised to finish first in 18- to 49- year-old viewers, those favored by advertisers, for the sixth straight season on the strength of "American Idol," the most popular show on television, Joe Early, a network spokesman, said last week on a conference call.

The increases could be a fluke. The big four networks last gained prime-time viewers in the season that ended in 2006, when the average rose 2 percent to 43.6 million, according to Nielsen. Before that, they hadn't recorded increases since at least 1995.