HERE WE GO AGAIN: Every year around this time, after the tumbrels have rolled and the blade has come down on the last of the year’s failed shows, the numbers are crunched and the cumulative ratings winner of the TV season just ended is announced. For the last few years – or basically as long as I’ve been writing this column – the big news is usually that Fox has done well, really well, and has either threatened to unseat NBC or CBS for their customary post at the top of the ratings ladder.

It’s a funny ritual – if you find ratings tallies and the imprecise language of demography funny. (I do, which is why you don’t want to invite me to parties.) CBS’ presumed lead for the last few years has been harder to defend, as Fox has taken the lead in more and more key ratings demographics, and has been unofficially crowned winner-in-every-way-that-matters for at least the last two years.

It’s been an irritating little ritual to watch, year after year, and it sometimes seemed like the squeamishness about the obvious truth was motivated by the continued perception of Fox as the upstart, the scrawny fox set among the regal network chickens. After reading the round-ups, with their careful parsing of the ratings, I always wanted to hit the caps key on my keyboard and writing something like FOX IS THE NUMBER ONE NETWORK ALREADY CAN’T WE JUST GET USED TO IT?

This year, there’s no point even pretending anymore, as the Los Angeles Times business section ran a story yesterday that the Nielsen numbers have awarded Fox “the largest audience in prime time” and that the network “should collect blue ribbons in every major demographic category.” The big “but” to the story is that, given the dismal shambles that characterized the 2007-08 season, which began with a generally unimpressive slate of new shows before being derailed by the writers’ strike, Fox’s ascension to the throne feels like being crowned king of some plague-wracked, war-ravaged kingdom.

This is the fourth year in a row that Fox has ruled the 18-49-year-old roost, helped enormously by American Idol, and despite a 10 per cent decline in the show’s ratings. With fewer scripted shows, and a shortened primetime (the network switches to local news at 10pm, while its competition has another hour to fill with original programming), Fox was best positioned to survive the year’s harrowing conditions, and saw a five per cent rise in overall ratings since last year.

Further down the rankings, ABC and CBS are in a photo finish for second place, while NBC, the top network when its comedies ruled the night just a few years ago, is firmly in fourth place. This is known in the business as the Curse Of Joey, and the network is rumoured to be considering ritual exorcism of all of its programming executives at some point over the summer.

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