The “Big Three” major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, which have shaped American television for the last two decades, are apparently losing their monopolistic control over the public. Viewers instead are turning to VCR’s, cable, and an “upstart fourth network,” Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which has enjoyed a steady increase in viewership.
The Big Three have suffered “audience erosion” with 70 percent of the combined share audience watching, compared to 92 percent in 1978. “We are still the Goliath of broadcasting, but we will be slain by all the little Davids, if we don’t pay attention to them,” said Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast group.
CBN was considered the “upstart fourth network,” by Time Magazine in its recent article, “The Big Boys’ Blues” (October 17, l988). Spokesman Darlene Smyda said, “We’ve definitely had an increase in viewers. As of October 11th, we had 42 million households.” CBN’s “Family Channel” viewership has steadily increased since 1981, and grew by two million since last May. Smyda said the audience is not necessarily a religious audience, but simply those who like family programming.
Despite attempts to develop new sitcom material to appeal to newer and narrow audiences such as yuppies and single mothers, and to scale down production costs, the decline among the three networks shows no signs of leveling off. Over 3,500 employees have been laid off in the last two years at all Big Three networks. They are also expanding their revenue base by investing in production of documentaries and home videos.
Although networks are diversifying their profits, decline of influence seems cast in concrete. Eugene Secunda, professor of marketing at Baruch College in New York City, told Time, “You’re dealing with inevitable decline. It’s like those folks who kidded themselves that the Roman Empire was going to go on forever. It was an illusion.”
Analysts project that the influence of the major networks will be dispersed among eight or 10 networks, thus fragmenting competition. Some observers say bad TV programming isn’t the reason for the drop in viewership; instead it is new technologies such as home satellite dishes and fiber-optic cable. Also, the average viewer today isn’t sampling every TV show, which is much different from the viewer of the late 1970s who watched everything. Today’s viewers have cable TV, home video and other independent stations from which to select from.