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ABC Takes Early Lead in Sweeps

Nov 14, 2005  •  Post A Comment

ABC is poised to return to its 1999 glory this November sweeps-and without having to resort to stunts.

In the first week of sweeps ABC led the networks in the adults 18 to 49 demographic with a 4.5 prime-time rating average, according to Nielsen Media Research. Of the top five shows that week, four are from ABC, with Sunday night’s “Desperate Housewives” the No. 1 show in the demo with a 10.2.

The last time ABC was this dominant in November was six years ago, when the network was riding the short-lived wave of ratings success driven by the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

The fact that the network is winning on its regular schedule and not stunt programming speaks to the overall health of ABC and the journey the network took climbing back to the top, said Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director for Horizon Media.

“It took them that long to get over the ‘Millionaire’ hangover,” Mr. Adgate said. “You go back to basics.”

The overall lack of stunting sheds light on how all the networks are faring with their new fall schedules, Mr. Adgate said.

“This was a pretty good indication of what the networks have,” he said. Even if football hadn’t performed as well as it did last year, ABC still would have dominated the top five because of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

“The one anomaly was ABC. ‘Monday Night Football’ had a really strong game,” Mr. Adgate said.

Last year, the first football game of November sweeps ranked No. 10 in the demo with a 6.4; last Monday’s game between Indianapolis and New England scored an 8.8, coming in at No. 5.

Despite being up 10 percent in adults 18 to 49 over last November’s sweeps, ABC still has a long three weeks ahead of it as last year’s November sweeps winner CBS nips at its heels, averaging a 4.4 for the week.

The success of “Housewives,” “Lost” and the midseason-surprise-turned-fall-performer “Grey’s Anatomy” is strengthening ABC, but calling the network a winner this early is premature, said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for ad agency Campbell Mithun.

“It is still a highly competitive ratings race relative to historical trends,” Mr. Rash said. “While [ABC is] No. 1, no one is the decisive, unquestioned leader the way ABC was in 1999 and NBC was for subsequent seasons.”

NBC’s ratings woes continued through the first week of sweeps, with the former top performer dropping 20 percent from its year-ago average of 4.1 to a 3.3. Fourth-place Fox, always a challenged network during sweeps due to schedule disruptions from postseason baseball, saw a slight gain over last year, growing 3 percent in the demo to a 3.0.

This sweeps marks a change of strategy for Fox, which last year chose the November sweeps to launch new series. The September premiere of the sophomore season of “House” and the August debut of “Prison Break” gave the network momentum into November sweeps it lacked in 2004. Fox appears so confident in “Break” that last week it announced it was pulling the Monday comedies “Arrested Development” and “Kitchen Confidential” for the remainder of November and replacing them with “Break” repeats.

November is likely to be the sole competitive sweeps this year, with NBC getting an Olympics advantage in the winter and Fox aiming to repeat its success in the spring with the midseason “American Idol,” Mr. Adgate said.

“I’ll tell you right now NBC will win February sweeps, and Fox will probably win May sweeps,” he said.

In terms of median age, UPN remained the youngest-skewing network for the first week of sweeps with a 30.9, while CBS stayed the old man of the group with a 50.8.

UPN’s declining median age, which was down almost three years from last sweeps, points to changes in its schedule, Mr. Rash said. “UPN’s fountain of youth is … reflective of losing ‘Enterprise,’ which brought in a more multigenerational audience, and a complete emphasis on youth-oriented programming,” he said. Aging up a full three years from 47.0 to 50.0, NBC is feeling the continued effects of no longer being the place for “Must See TV,” Mr. Rash said.