Lisa de Moraes
Lisa de Moraes
The TV Column

CBS wins network ratings-war again; reality-competition shows still dominate

CBS can call itself the country’s most-watched network for the ninth time in the past 10 years.

The network won the 2011-12 television season, which ended Wednesday, by averaging nearly 12 million viewers each week. That’s about 3 million more viewers than closest-competitor Fox, the largest margin of victory of any network in more than two decades.

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Pulitzer Prize winner, Peabody recipient, Medal of Freedom honoree -- Lisa de Moraes is none of these, but she is an authority on the bad direction, over-acting, and muddled plot lines being played out in the TV industry's executive suites.

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America continued to be passionate about reality competition series this season — as evidenced by the 132 million votes that “American Idol” clocked Tuesday night, naming Phillip Phillips this season’s winner, to the surprise of no one. Half the country’s 10 most-watched programs this season were reality competition shows, including two nights each of “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars,” and NBC’s “The Voice.”

But there are signs of wear and tear in America’s love affair with the genre. Both “Idol” and “Dancing” took major hits. ABC’s “Dancing” fumbled about 4 million viewers compared with last season, and Fox’s “Idol” lost about 6 million.

“Idol’s” eight-season streak as the country’s most-watched program came to an end; it came in No. 2, behind NBC’s Sunday football. Fox execs have said that they dropped the ball this season and that “Idol” changes are in store for next season. (Maybe one of those changes might even end the death grip on the franchise held by scruffy, safe white guys with guitars who keep winning — Phil2 being the latest.)

Meanwhile, the season’s 10 most-watched shows include four scripted ones, all from CBS.

One of the comedies — the Thursday show “The Big Bang Theory” — was also the season’s most popular scripted series among 18-to-49-year-old viewers who are the currency of TV ad sales.

In that “money” group, the season’s Top 10 list also includes such scripted shows as CBS’s “Two and a Half Men” and new “2 Broke Girls,” and ABC’s “Modern Family.”

CBS, which is known as the network that attracts large numbers of older viewers, finished a close second with this younger age bracket for the season — much closer to front-runner Fox than it did last season. That said, football reigned supreme this season — among 18-to-49-year-olds as well as viewers of all ages — followed by two editions of “Idol” and NBC’s “The Voice.”

Here’s a look at the 2011-12 TV season’s Top 10 most-watched programs:

1. “NBC Sunday Night Football.” In ending “Idol’s” streak as the country’s most-watched program, Sunday football on NBC averaged 20.7 million people during the season; “Idol’s” performance night averaged 19.7 million.

2. “American Idol” performance night (Wednesday). After a long stint in the top spot, Fox’s singing competition series got bumped down a notch, finishing its 11th edition in second place — about 1 million viewers shy of NBC’s Sunday football. Industry pundits point to the proliferation of singing competition shows this season, including “The Voice” and Fox’s own “The X Factor.”

3. “NCIS.” CBS’s long-running crime drama is the country’s most-watched scripted series for the third consecutive season, virtually matching last season’s audience with about 19.5 million viewers. There’s an age-old Hollywood truism — although usually told only to young starlets being talked into doing nude scenes — that there is no such thing as overexposure. And in its sixth season, when USA Network began to telecast an orgy of “NCIS” reruns across its schedule, the original’s audience on CBS actually grew by more than 3 million viewers, although it was the show’s sixth season on the air. The next season, CBS cloned the show, following it with yet another hour of “NCIS” — this one set in Los Angeles — and the original’s audience grew again, by nearly a million more viewers.

4. “American Idol” (Thursday). In its 11th edition, the results night of Fox’s singing competition series still attracted more than 18 million viewers each week, behind only its own performance night, CBS’s “NCIS” and NBC’s Sunday football. As with its Wednesday performance show, “Idol” took a ratings fall this season.

5. “Dancing With the Stars.” The 13th and 14th editions of ABC’s popular dance competition — airing in the fall of ’11 and spring of ’12 — collectively averaged more than 18 million viewers on its performance-night broadcasts. This was the first season that “Dancing” encountered NBC’s singing competition series “The Voice” in its time slot.

6. “NCIS: Los Angeles.” In its third season, CBS’s “NCIS” spinoff was the country’s second-most-popular scripted series, behind only “NCIS,” and averaged 16 million viewers.

7. “Dancing With the Stars” results show. Results night of ABC’s dance competition series was the country’s seventh-most-watched program, averaging 16 million viewers; this season it battled NBC’s singing competition “The Voice” on Tuesday nights.

8. “The Big Bang Theory.” America’s most-popular scripted comedy series (airing Thursday nights on CBS) became the first scripted show to beat “Idol” in head-to-head competition. In its fifth season, “Big Bang” is one of the country’s fastest-growing broadcast TV series, averaging 18 percent more viewers this season than last.

9. “The Voice.” NBC’s singing competition is the only “new” show in this season’s Top 10, although the show’s first edition debuted four weeks before the end of last season, running the bulk of its episodes over the summer. It was the country’s ninth-most-watched show, with an average of 15.8 million people tuning in weekly.

10. “Two and a Half Men.” Replacing star Charlie Sheen with Ashton Kutcher was a Hail Mary by CBS and production house Warner Bros., in the hopes they could keep the sitcom going for one last season (its ninth). Instead, the show enjoyed 16 percent more viewers this season than last — and a whopping 30 percent increase among 18-to-49-year -olds. Some of these season-to-season spikes are because of the 33 million people who watched the show’s return back in September to see Sheen’s character killed off, and Kutcher’s introduced.

Part of the ratings spike, however, is only the natural result of CBS having aired so many “Men” repeats last season while Sheen was in “rehab.”

To read previous columns by Lisa de Moraes, go to washingtonpost.com/
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