WHERE DID THURSDAY'S AUDIENCE GO?

The collapse of Thursday-night ratings became even more obvious this week as every major network except Fox recorded double-digit percentage drops from a year ago. NBC, which once owned the night with its Must See TV lineup, lost the most. It was down 19 percent from the comparable Thursday last year. CBS, which now dominates on Thursday, nevertheless saw a 17-percent drop from last year. ABC fell 16 percent. The CW, more a syndicated distribution system than a network, fell 20 percent. Fox fell 8 percent. In reporting the results, Marc Berman, who tracks Nielsen ratings for MediaWeek, asked, "Just where is the audience going?" He offered no theory.

STATION GROUP SUES NIELSEN

Sunbeam Television, whose owner, Ed Ansin, drew much attention when he announced his decision to replace the upcoming Jay Leno nightly variety show with local news -- and later reversed the decision -- has filed an anti-trust complaint in federal court against Nielsen Media Research. Sunbeam claims in its filing that Nielsen has violated federal and state antitrust laws "by unlawfully maintaining and perpetuating its monopoly in the TV-ratings market." The lawsuit alleges that TV broadcasters "are left with no choice but to purchase Nielsen's ratings in order to market air time to advertisers." Moreover, Sunbeam challenges the accuracy of Nielsen's data, pointing out that when Nielsen moved from Meter-Diaries to Local People Meters (LPMs) last October, the ratings for one of Sunbeam's stations in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market dropped by half. "There are serious problems with LPMs that are well-known to Nielsen," the lawsuit contends. Nielsen called the lawsuit "utterly without merit" and insisted that the current Miami ratings "are more accurate than any previous measurement of this market."

OBAMA BEATS IDOL

Wednesday's primetime press conference marking President Obama's 100th day in office was watched by 28.8 million people on the broadcast cable networks, well off the 49.5 million who tuned in for his first broadcast press conference in February and the 40.4 million who watched in March. Commented Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes: "Any other series, a plunge like that would have network suits sending stern memos calling for the addition of a wacky next-door neighbor to the show. Or at least an adorable puppy. Oh wait." Nevertheless, the president drew a larger audience than Fox's American Idol earlier in evening, which attracted 22.4 million viewers, its smallest Wednesday audience in four years.

SEACREST SAYS COWELL WILL LEAVE IDOL AFTER NEXT SEASON

Appearing to end speculation about the tenure of Simon Cowell on Fox's American Idol, the show's host, Ryan Seacrest, said on his syndicated radio show Thursday that "Cowell told us that he would be leaving at the end of next season." Cowell has hinted in recent interviews that he would be leaving, but Seacrest put a date on the departure. In today's (Friday) Los Angeles Times, entertainment writer Jon Caramanica speculated that Cowell wants out of Idol so that he can launch a U.S. version of his U.K. hit show X-Factor. "Could Simon be tanking Idol, letting air out of its tires, to clear the playing field?" Caramanica asked.

TIME OUT IN NFL-COX CLASH

It's a long time before the football season starts and that may be a principal reason why Comcast, the nation's largest cable-TV operator, and the NFL Network appeared headed toward a showdown Thursday night. The NFL had threatened to yank its 24-hour network from Comcast systems at 11:59 p.m. unless Comcast made the network available to subscribers on its basic tier (that does not require them to sign up for Cox's $7-a-month sports package). But as the deadline loomed, one or both of the sides backed off. In a joint statement this morning (Friday), the two sides said, "Comcast and the NFL are engaged in productive discussions toward a new agreement for NFL Network carriage on Comcast. NFL Network will continue to be carried on Comcast systems past [the] scheduled expiration of the current contract while both sides continue these productive discussions. We are both working to find a solution that works for NFL fans and Comcast's customers."

OBAMA APPOINTS CLYBURN TO FCC

Mignon Clyburn, currently a commissioner on the South Carolina Public Service Commission and the daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, has been nominated to replace former FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who has been appointed to a position with the Rural Utilities Service. Prior to her service on the South Carolina commission, Ms. Clyburn was the publisher and general manager of a Charleston newspaper, The Coastal Times, for 14 years.