Nets spin sweeps tally, look toward fall season

May 27, 2002  •  Post A Comment

NBC may have just finished celebrating its diamond anniversary, but at the end of May sweeps it looked more golden than anything else.
Blessed with a ratings haul from February’s Winter Olympics and nine of the top 20 network series, NBC ended the 2001-02 season dominant in virtually every major adult demographic in addition to households and total viewers. Still, at a time when all the broadcast networks lack a breakout freshman hit series, CBS, UPN and The WB showed strong resiliency-probably at the expense of across-the-board demo declines for ABC and Fox this season.
“NBC and CBS proved their stability with returning series, while Fox and ABC’s rapid declines allowed those two [NBC and CBS] to build,” said Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA. “These days, stability is just as or more important than actual growth.”
Nevertheless, NBC could still point to a May sweeps (free of the Olympics and other major sports stunting) as marking 8 percent year-to-year growth at a top-ranked 5.5 rating/15 share average among adults 18 to 49, according to final Nielsen Media Research national data. NBC heralded its eighth consecutive sweeps win and a record 38 percent margin of victory over second-place CBS (4.0/11)-the largest cushion since Nielsen’s advent of People Meters in 1987.
The pinnacle of NBC’s renewed growth was the May 16 season-ending episode of “Friends,” in which Rachel gave birth, which became the highest-rated entertainment series of the season in adults 18 to 49 (17.0 rating/44 share) and total viewers (34.9 million).
“The birth of Rachel’s baby capped what has been a spectacular season,” said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. “Either way you look at [the May sweeps and the season], it was just a dominant story for us, with or without the Olympics.”
Mr. Sternberg said the Peacock’s regular series lineup-excluding the Olympics-still marked 4 percent improvement in adults 18 to 49 this season vs. 2000-01 (5.2 rating vs. 5.0 rating). CBS, which benefited from “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’s” ratings growth and new planting of “The Amazing Race,” was up for the season by 3 percent in adults 18 to 49 (3.9 rating vs. 3.8 rating)-although it lacked other breakthrough freshmen hits.
“More than anything, NBC and CBS are in stability rather than major growth modes, but it should bode well for both in terms of any new series they’ll put in place with their returning shows next season,” Mr. Sternberg said. “What really helped is that `Friends,’ `Law & Order,’ `Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ and `The West Wing’ returned strongly, which led NBC to have fewest new series [five] to add to next season’s schedule. They, along with CBS, seem to be in the best shape for next season.”
Roy Rothstein, Zenith Media’s senior VP and director of national audience research, said he believes CBS will offer NBC renewed competition for adults 18 to 49, total viewers and households next season. “CBS keeps nibbling away, and they should keep [NBC] honest in the demos,” he said. “When they have 10 p.m. dramas like `CSI: Miami’ [on Monday nights] and `Without a Trace’ [on Thursdays], I only see CBS being more competitive in the adult demos against NBC next season.”
CBS Television President and CEO Leslie Moonves said adding “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace” to the lineup were “no brainer” decisions that will only serve to solidify CBS’s Monday through Thursday positions in adults 18 to 49 and total viewers.
“We do think we have an incredible new slate of shows, especially targeted at the 10 o’clock time periods on every night of the week,” Mr. Moonves said.
As a bearer of potentially good 10 p.m. Monday tidings next season, “CSI: Miami,” introduced in the 9 p.m. Thursday airing of “CSI” on May 9, made the latter the second-most watched show of the week at 27.1 million total viewers (just behind “ER’s” 28.7 million head count).
Nevertheless, Mr. Moonves, as well as competing network executives, admitted that establishing comedy series was especially rough this season. Despite Fox’s good fortune of adding “The Bernie Mac Show,” which has been seen as a breakout comedy, ratings researchers still think there is room for growth on that show as it moves from 9 p.m. to an 8 p.m. Wednesday slot next season.
Like ABC, Fox experienced across-the-board declines in the adult demographics and total viewers, but the losses were mostly due to the aging of departing dramas “Ally McBeal” and “The X-Files.”
Given the aging dramas (including the cancellation of second-year drama “Dark Angel”) and baseball’s World Series delaying the start of the season into the November 2001 sweeps, Fox Entertainment Chairman Sandy Grushow acknowledged that the 2001-02 season “did not go off as expected or hoped for.” However, Mr. Grushow, along with Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, expressed pride in Fox’s launching of such critically received series as “24,” “Bernie Mac” and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”-the last of which is being held for a midseason 2003 re-entry to Fox’s lineup.
“No network had extraordinary success … because we did not see any 20 share shows launch this fall,” Mr. Grushow said. “[We are going] to stay the course with quality shows, because you don’t do it by offering standard, lower-brow entertainment. It is going to take some time for some people to find these quality shows, but we’re going to stay on this course.”
For ABC, the course appears uncertain as the network marked a second season of double-digit declines in all ratings measures. Recently installed ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne, in a conference call last week with reporters, conceded that the network did not even want to make any kind of prognostications on ABC’s future ratings outlook.
“I have one promise to make to you: that we’re not going to be first in any demo or time period [next season],” Ms. Lyne said with a laugh.
“In a season where we did not perform well, I’d still like to point out bright spots, where we did have `Alias’ as the second-highest rated new drama in adults 18 to 49 this season [behind NBC’s “Crossing Jordan”] and `NYPD Blue’ showing renewed signs of growth in its return to its 10 o’clock Tuesday time slot.”
Additionally, Ms. Lyne sought to highlight the May sweeps success of reality series “The Bachelor” and three-part miniseries “Dinotopia” as being 9 p.m. Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday hour building blocks, respectively, for next season’s schedule.
Still, not all were convinced.
“I don’t think ABC has bottomed out yet,” Zenith’s Mr. Rothstein said. “Next season could be worse because they have so many holes in their schedule and so much of [the new series introductions] are a process of trial and error. To me, I don’t see `The Bachelor’ being a long-term hit show. `Dinotopia’ was a pretty good miniseries performer, but as a big budget series, I think they’re crazy to put it up against `Friends’ [on Thursday] when they would have much less competition at 8 o’clock Friday. There just seems to be limited upside potential in ABC’s upcoming schedule.”