Network television is attempting to once again defy the laws of gravity.
This week broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox test their strength as the industry kicks off its annual springtime ad sales market known as the upfront. The networks take turns unveiling their new fall schedules amid glitzy presentations in New York City's Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and other tony venues -- in an effort to attract billions of dollars in advertising commitments.
But forces are working against broadcasters on multiple fronts.
Each year, prime-time audiences shrink, and the younger viewers coveted by advertisers become more difficult to attract. Cable programs such as AMC's The Walking Dead and HBO's Game of Thrones grab attention, accolades and audiences. The broadcast business also is challenged by new technologies and services -- including Netflix -- which threaten to nibble away at television's financial underpinnings.
"In a world of infinite choice, the need for breakthrough programming has never been greater," 21st Century Fox chief operating officer Chase Carey told analysts last week.
The big question headed into this year's advertising auction is whether the networks can buck the downward trends and maintain their edge. Complicating matters: So far this year, the TV advertising market has fallen short of expectations -- leading some networks to struggle to hit their first-quarter TV revenue marks.
"The advertising market seems a little tepid," said Amanda Richman, president of advertising buying firm Starcom USA.
Still, the network executives are optimistic their new fall shows will reel in ad dollars. They are trying to make up for ground lost during the current season when only a handful of new programs got traction. Ratings are down for three of the four major networks -- ABC, CBS and Fox. Only NBC was able to grow its ratings during the current season.
High-profile shows, including comedies starring Robin Williams and Michael J. Fox, failed to live up to their hype. Fox Broadcasting watched in horror as its longtime engine, American Idol, collapsed in the ratings.
Despite the woes, network television remains the first stop for most advertisers, as television continues to have an unparalleled ability to consistently deliver five million to 15 million viewers for a single program.
"Advertisers still have a need for scale," Richman said. "There will always be interest in great content, and that will continue to drive demand."
Last year, the broadcast networks sold nearly $11 billion in commercial time, including for network sports, during the upfront, according to an estimate by Pivotal Research Group. Prime-time ads alone made up more than $8.5 billion, with those running throughout the day and late at night generating the rest.
That $8.5-billion haul was about flat with levels in previous years. Cable networks gained market share and are expected to do so again this year.
"We're not expecting the upfront to be dramatically different than last year," said Linda Yaccarino, president of advertising sales for NBCUniversal. "But what will be different is a rearranging of the deck chairs. The pecking order of leadership has changed."
The NBC network, now wholly owned by Comcast Corp., is expected to finish the current season in first place in the demographic advertisers care most about: viewers ages 18 to 49. NBC is up 17 per cent in that category.
Boosted by the Winter Olympics in February, strong ratings from its Sunday Night Football franchise and its new hit drama The Blacklist, NBC has this season attracted an average 9.4 million viewers a night -- a 35 per cent increase over the previous season.
"This is the first time in 10 years that we're finishing in first place, so that's very exciting," Yaccarino said.
On Monday, NBC showed advertisers its new fall schedule that includes political thriller State of Affairs, starring Grey's Anatomy alumna Katherine Heigl.
CBS also is expected to make a strong showing. The network, which is on track to finish the season in first place in overall viewers, plans to return 20 shows from the current season, the highest percentage of any network.
CBS attracts an average 10.8 million viewers in prime time, but its audience for some programs skews older. It's expected to finish the season in third place, just behind Fox, in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic.
CBS is poised to do better next year after winning the rights to the NFL's new Thursday-night package, giving the network eight games in prime time that should generate huge ratings.
"I believe that CBS will once again lead the marketplace in upfront pricing and volume," CEO Les Moonves predicted. "The addition of the NFL in prime time will... allow us to have more original programming throughout the year."
It could be a tougher sell for Fox and ABC, which is owned by Walt Disney Co.
ABC is on track to finish the season third in total viewers, with an average 7.5 million in prime time.
But the network will likely land in fourth place among the 18 to 49 bracket. ABC last week ordered another instalment from its comic franchise, Marvel's Agent Carter, and a new drama from Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal.
Fox plans to return the slumping American Idol for at least another season, but cancelled its other singing competition show, The X-Factor, which made up nearly 25 per cent of the network's prime-time schedule during the fourth quarter, leaving a big programming gap.