At first glance, Fox’s ratings dominance in the February ratings sweeps makes the network look like the far-and-away winner in the adults 18 to 49 demographic. But compensate for some Super Bowl inflation and the race for No. 1 in the demo becomes a much closer four-way scrimmage.
For the first seven days of the February sweeps, which began Thursday, Feb. 3, Fox maintained a commanding lead in adults 18 to 49 with an 11.2 average rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was more than
double second-place ABC’s seven-day average of 3.5 in the demo. CBS and NBC, both with 3.4, tied for third place.
If you remove Sunday, Jan. 6, from the sweeps ratings average, the parity is more clear. Fox is ahead with a 4.6 in the demo, followed by CBS and NBC (both 3.9) and ABC (3.8), making the quartet of networks competitive for the top spot.
“It’s going to be a real horse race,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media. “It’s always been tight among two networks, but never four.”
What exactly the top spot in the demo would mean in such a close race remains to be seen.
“If you’re No. 1 by a wide margin that would make a difference, because that would be a significant difference between you and your competitors,” said Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment. “If you’re No. 1 by one-tenth of a rating point, two-tenths of a point, three-tenths of a point, I don’t see it.”
Mr. Bader said sweeps are “still important to our affiliates” and as far as “disrupting regular viewing patterns, we try not to do that.”
Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research, said where networks end up can be a guide to overall performance once an upward ratings tick or a downward trend is factored in.
“They are at different moments in their history,” he said of the networks, “especially the one that was No. 1 last year,” referring to NBC.
For a seven-day sweeps average in the demo, Fox is obviously the big winner, followed by ABC. All the other networks saw losses compared with their first seven-day averages from last February. Taking out Super Bowl Sunday 2005 gives a different picture in terms of gains or losses from last year. ABC is up 23 percent for its six-day February 2005 sweeps average in adults 18 to 49 from 2004, Fox is up 15 percent and The WB is up 6 percent. NBC is down 17 percent, CBS is down 24 percent and UPN dropped 25 percent.
Mr. Beckman said he doesn’t expect the tight four-way race to last long.
“It’s three- to four-tenths difference this year, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee next year will be this close,” he said.
Losing Its Meaning
The fact that so many networks are gunning for the top spot in the demo is not the only reason this February sweeps is unique. Mr. Beckman said that having the Super Bowl and Academy Awards in February distorts the usual sweeps picture. Add in the continuing rollout of Nielsen’s Local People Meters, and the impact of sweeps on the networks-which have traditionally programmed those periods to help their affiliates more than anything else-is unclear.
“I don’t know what the sweeps mean anymore,” he said.
Tom Bierbaum, VP of ratings and program information for NBC Universal Television Group, said unique programming like the Super Bowl and the Oscars gives little indication of a network’s overall ratings strength.
“The way you program a network over 52 weeks doesn’t make somehow putting a marquis event in February a logical part of the business,” Mr. Bierbaum said.
Bruce Goerlich, executive VP and director of strategic resources for Zenith Media, agreed, saying unique events give a short-term boost but may have limited impact going forward.
“It’s about the depth of the programs you have, and when you start looking at depth, CBS and NBC start popping up,” he said. “You can leverage individual programs to do well on particular nights, and that can be a long-term start to grow your brand, but the other strategy is to have breadth across the week.”
That means Mr. Goerlich is less interested in network horse races and more about targeting specific needs.
“[We] can use any and all the networks to benefit our clients,” he said.
Mr. Beckman said Fox’s success during the first seven days of sweeps is not just due to the Super Bowl or stunts. The fourth season of “American Idol,” which airs twice a week since its premiere in January and will go to three nights a week starting Feb. 21, has given the network a much-needed boost after a lackluster fall. He also touted the performance of the medical drama “House” and returning serial thriller “24.”
“We’re cautiously optimistic about `House,”‘ he said. The show, which follows “Idol” on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (ET), has improved since it premiered Nov. 16. “It has grown now for two consecutive weeks. Now we’re starting to see signs that the show is taking hold with viewers. It is a function beyond its lead-in.”
“House” is also apparently taking hold with the network. Last Thursday Fox announced it is picking up the show for a full order of 22 episodes, some of which will likely air this summer.
CBS also renewed its 9 p.m. Tuesday series, reality program “Amazing Race.” The most recent installment wrapped last week. A seventh installment begins March 1, the second-to-last day of sweeps. Eighth and ninth editions also have been ordered for the 2005-06 TV season. CBS declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Beckman also attributed the network’s sweeps performance to “24’s” new Monday 9 p.m. time slot.
“We’re unbelievably ecstatic about the move for `24,”‘ he said, noting that it had a more protected time period last season. “It’s about 30 percent above its 18 to 49 [ratings] from last year, and that was even with `Idol’ as a lead-in.” Mr. Goerlich said that in a world where networks sell ad time not based on sweeps performance but yearly numbers, which network takes the top spot in February isn’t crucial. But he pointed out that “there is a psychic effect you can have if you posture you are No. 1.” He said he was not a buyer of network advertising, but a sales pitch that includes rhetoric about being the top network is “one thing people have to get over.”
“It’s nice to have that favorable smoke, because it’s another thing we have to hack our way through,” he said of network pitches. “Not being No. 1 means you have one less handful of confetti to throw in the air. It does create a less presumption of strength, but that doesn’t mean there is not strength there.”