VIEWERS FLEEING BROADCAST NETWORKS

If the broadcast networks are experiencing a distressing drop in ad sales, they cannot blame the problem entirely on the recession, the latest Nielsen ratings indicate. While three of the four -- CBS was the exception -- experienced some erosion in audience numbers during the regular season, the summer season has seen a wholesale exodus for all of them. Last week, Fox's audience was down a whopping 25 percent from the comparable week a year ago. ABC's was down nearly as much -- 22 percent. NBC's was off 13 percent. And even CBS, which won the week, was down 6 percent. The one bright spot in the ratings data remained the evening news -- but even all three network newscasts saw their numbers fall without the Michael Jackson story to sustain them. NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams led the field with 7.8 million viewers widening its lead over ABC World News With Charles Gibson, which attracted 7.0 million viewers. CBS Evening News With Katie Couric remained far behind with 5.3 million.

The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research:

1. America's Got Talent (Wednesday), NBC, 7.2/12; 1. (Tie) NCIS, CBS, 7.2/13; 3. America's Got Talent (Tuesday) NBC, 6.2/10; 3. The Mentalist (Tuesday), CBS, 6.2/10; 5. Primetime: Family Secrets, ABC, 6.0/10; 5. Two and a Half Men, CBS, 6.0/10; 7. 60 Minutes, CBS, 5.9/12; 8. CSI: Miami, CBS, 5.7/10; 9. The Mentalist (Thursday), CBS, 5.5/10; 10. The Bachelorette, ABC, 5.3/9; 10. (Tie) The Big Bang Theory, CBS, 5.3/9.

MORE TO-DO OVER NBC TERRORIST SERIES

New questions are being raised about the propriety of NBC's decision to air a documentary series, The Wanted, in which the producers worked with private groups to expose terrorists and war criminals. Broadcasting & Cable on Tuesday quoted Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute in Florida as saying, "They're clearly describing this as journalism as opposed to entertainment, and it's coming out of the news division. But they are collaborating with organizations that have motives that are different than journalistic motives." The trade publication also talked to Tom Bivins, who teaches media ethics at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism, who commented: "People who are in the news business have no business making the news. ... To me, this smacks of vigilantism." The fact that those who are targeted by the producers do indeed have terrorist ties does not justify the programming, McBride remarked. "Because the suspects are so unlikable anyway, nobody is really asking a lot of questions. But it's very hard to claim any sort of independence as a journalist when you team up with law enforcement." But Charlie Ebersol, whose independent production company, Echo Ops, produced the program for NBC, told B&C: "These are people who are wanted in connection with killing Americans ... and really looking to do damage to that which we represent." As for the production gimmicks that are employed, Ebersol commented, "There is validity to education through entertainment."

RUSSELL BRAND TO HOST MTV VIDEO AWARDS AGAIN

British comedian Russell Brand, probably best known in the U.S. for his performance as a flamboyant rock star in last year's hit movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall, has been selected to host the MTV Video Music Awards on September 13, MTV said Tuesday. Brand has been embroiled in controversies since his appearance on the awards show. His jokes at the time about the Jonas Brothers' "purity rings" generated numerous complaints, as did his reference to former President Bush as that "retarded cowboy fella." He subsequently pulled out of his BBC radio program after an uproar over a series of lewd voice messages that he and talk-show host Jonathan Ross left on the answering machine of actor Andrew Sachs. The BBC was later fined more than $225,000 for broadcasting the messages. In a statement on Tuesday, Brand promised to behave at this year's VMAs. "This year will be a controversy-free festival of love and discreet orgasms," he said.