NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sports and science fiction helped propel the Fox network to victory in the weekly television ratings race, as the Hollywood writers' strike left audiences with few of their usual prime-time favorites.
Figures from Nielsen Media Research released on Tuesday showed News Corp's Fox taking the crown for viewers aged 18 to 49 -- those most prized by advertisers -- followed by CBS, NBC and ABC for the week ending January 13.
All the networks except CBS, a unit of CBS Corp, showed marked audience declines from the same week a year ago.
Television programming has been hard hit by the 10-week-old screenwriters strike, which has cut down the number of fresh prime-time dramas and sitcoms the broadcast networks have to offer audiences.
Fox, however, won the week with the help of a strong premiere of its new sci-fi action drama, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," one of a handful of scripted shows set for a winter mid-season launch and one of the most anticipated.
More help for Fox came from the strong showings posted by a National Football League playoff game and the college football national championship between LSU and Ohio State.
CBS also benefited from an NFL playoff game, as well as one of its few remaining original episodes of "CSI," the hit crime drama, and "Comanche Moon," a miniseries set in the Old West.
With no end to the strike in sight, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have filled their winter schedules with more specials, sports, game shows and reality TV to make up for a growing scarcity of scripted dramas and comedies.
Indeed, five of the top 20 shows for the week fell into the reality game show category, including two editions of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "American Gladiators," "Biggest Loser 5" and "Amazing Race 12."
The dearth of scripted prime-time fare has some believing that audience size could drop 20 percent from a year ago, as Americans turn to the Internet, video games and other new media in favor of TV.
But the television industry's problems run deeper than the walkout by the Writers Guild of America. Fall ratings, before the strike began, saw 10 percent declines.
Early returns for 2008 indicate that concerns about even steeper drops could be well-founded. Last week, CBS's ratings were steady from a year ago, but Fox fell 19 percent, ABC fell 16 percent and NBC fell 7 percent, based on Nielsen figures.
But those numbers could change dramatically since they reflect viewership before premieres of the most anticipated returning shows of the season, including ABC's "Lost" and Fox's "American Idol."
Long a blockbuster, "American Idol" returns for a seventh season on Tuesday and is expected to easily rank again as the most watched show of the season. The TV talent competition is usually broadcast twice weekly and last season averaged over 30 million viewers per episode.
ABC is unit of Walt Disney Co and NBC is majority-owned by General Electric Co.
Editing by Richard Chang