With help from the Super Bowl and the returning phenomenon “American Idol,” Fox not only won the February sweeps period in both the adults 18 to 49 demographic and total viewers, but has also tied CBS for the top spot in the demo for the first 23 weeks of the 2004-05 TV season.
For the February sweeps-which ran from Feb. 3 through March 2-Fox scored a 6.5 rating in adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was a 55 percent increase over February sweeps last year. In total viewers Fox also performed, garnering 15.57 million, a 60 percent increase over last year’s February sweeps.
ABC, which scored a 4.1 in adults 18 to 49 for the sweeps, was second in the demo to Fox. CBS was next with a 3.8, followed by NBC with a 3.6 and The WB and UPN, which tied at 1.4.
Looking at the networks’ performance over the course of the season, the race is much closer-Fox and CBS remained tied with a 4.0 in adults 18 to 49, while ABC is close behind with a 3.8 and NBC garners a 3.6. UPN and The WB tie with a 1.4.
“This is a good day to be at the Fox Broadcasting Network,” Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said last week, noting February gave the network its best-ever performance in total viewers and the adults 18 to 49 demo. She also said Fox’s win wasn’t predicated on a single football game.
“It’s very important to note we win the sweeps with or without the Super Bowl,” she said. Factoring out the Super Bowl, Fox does still win the sweeps, but by a smaller margin. Without Super Bowl Sunday, Fox averaged a 4.7 rating for the sweeps, beating by 12 percent its nearest competitor, ABC, which averaged a 4.2. But among total viewers, Fox drops to third place, behind CBS and ABC, when the Super Bowl is factored out of the equation.
Ms. Berman was keen to promote the season debut of “24” on Mondays, “The O.C.’s” move to Thursdays and the strengthening of new medical drama “House” as reasons why the network performed in February. And then, of course, there’s “American Idol,” which Ms. Berman said has not been overused, despite the addition of a third night a week for the music reality show during sweeps.
“You would be very hard-pressed to find any other network [that] schedules so judiciously,” she said, noting that Fox runs “Idol” only once a year, whereas NBC, CBS and ABC have been pumping multiple cycles of their top reality series in a single season.
She also confirmed Fox cut the Wednesday night results show last week from one hour to a half-hour out of concern for overexposure. “We don’t need it to win the sweeps,” she said, “and we feel the results shows are better as a half-hour.”
ABC also had a sweeps in which it showed improvement. The network grew 14 percent in adults 18 to 49 from last season’s winter sweeps and improved 8 percent from last February in total viewers.
“We’re obviously pleased with the momentum,” said Stephen McPherson, president of ABC prime-time entertainment. “We feel that we have more assets than when we started the season.”
The debut of new dramas “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” plus the takeoff of the reality series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has helped ABC become more competitive, especially when looking at the network’s performance last year, said Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media.
“ABC made it a four-way race,” he said, noting that last year at this time NBC scored a 4.2 in the demo for the season, followed by CBS (4.1) and Fox (4.0). In 2004 ABC trailed in fourth place with a 3.5 for the first 23 weeks of the season.
Tom Bierbaum, VP of ratings and program information for NBC Universal Television Group, said Fox’s getting a number from the Super Bowl was expected and called the continuing strength of “Idol,” now in its fourth season, “a pleasant surprise for Fox.”
“What you see with the extra night of `Idol,’ Fox has an edge,” Mr. Bierbaum said. “The other three guys are close behind.”
The loss of “Friends” and “Frasier” seem to have taken their toll on NBC, which was No.1 last February and has slipped to a competitive but fourth-place finish for the sweeps. Mr. Bierbaum said that with the race for the top spot still so close, come upfront time in May NBC would continue to highlight for advertisers the fact that its audience remains young and wealthy.
“This is where we hope our continued strength in upscale viewers will help separate us from other networks with similar ratings,” he said.
Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS and UPN, said CBS’s current performance in the 18 to 49 demo was “something a whole lot of people here thought we’d never see. It’s gratifying to be competitive-let alone be first.”
Mr. Kahl said the network’s focus remains adults 25 to 54, a demo CBS has dominated. “But it’s fun to play in the 18 to 49 sandbox too,” he said.
He said the new landscape is likely to have an impact come the upfront.
“A couple of networks have really improved their positions from an advertising point of view,” he said, “and it will be interesting to see how things shake out. There are a lot of big, exciting shows for a lot of networks to go out and sell.”
Mr. Adgate said it may be premature to write off the season as a virtual four-way tie for first place.
“There’s still stuff that has to ride out,” he said, noting that the networks combined are introducing a host of new shows in March and April. Being so close could also encourage networks to take bigger gambles in terms of scheduling.
“You may see a lot more stunting and putting on more high-profile shows to win the ratings crown,” he said of the May sweeps.
`Flat Is the New Up’
For The WB and UPN, which focus more of their energies on the women 18 to 34 demographic than on adults 18 to 49, the sweeps offered frustrations. The WB, at a 2.2 in women 18 to 34 for the sweeps, was down 4 percent from last year. UPN scored a 1.7 in young women, a drop of 15 percent from February 2004.
David Janollari, president of entertainment for The WB, called the sweeps’ Sunday night domination by special events like the Oscars, Super Bowl and Grammys “extraordinary.”
“The things we’re focusing on are how our hit series have performed,” he said.
For Mr. Janollari, special programming on Sundays during February led his network to look at performance from Monday to Friday, where predictably, The WB’s returning series performed better.
“On a Monday-to-Friday basis, we’re looking at a real year-to-year gain” in women 18 to 34, he said. The weekday rating grew 9 percent, and other younger demos stood unchanged. “Flat is the new up,” he added.
Mr. Kahl described 2004-05 as “an interesting year,” since UPN has seen growth at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, thanks to its new dramas and increases on Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., due to “America’s Next Top Model.” But the network has suffered ratings setbacks in its urban comedy blocks “for reasons we have not quite figured out,” he said.
“That’s the only thing standing between us having a pretty great year.”