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Season Crown Down to Wire for Nets Again

Apr 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Another season, another down-to-the-wire finish.

As the 2005-06 season draws to a close, the top three networks in the adults 18 to 49 demographic are duking it out for the title of No. 1 network in the advertiser-friendly demo.

Like last year, when CBS and Fox were gunning for a season win through the last days of the May sweeps, this season is also coming down to a late-May showdown. May sweeps starts Thursday, April 27, and ends Wednesday, May 24. Besides CBS and Fox, ABC is also very much in this season’s adults 18 to 49 mix. That kind of three-way race is music to the ears of ad sales executives.

A competitive ratings race among several networks up until the last day of May sweeps is preferable to advertisers, according to Allison M. Johnson, associate media director of strategic resources for Zenith Media Services.

“The networks are putting forth a great effort to put out their best programming to attract viewers,” Ms. Johnson said. “That means compelling programming out there for our clients. It’s definitely good for our business.”

Fox ultimately edged out CBS to become the top network in the demo for 2004-05. And despite being slightly behind ABC on the eve of May sweeps this season, Fox is poised to once again take the adults 18 to 49 crown thanks largely to its music reality ratings gold mine, “American Idol.”

Besides its popularity, the ability to schedule “Idol” almost anywhere gives Fox an edge when it comes to producing a last-minute ratings boost, said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media.

“They can put it on any night they want,” Mr. Adgate said of Fox and “Idol.” “There are so many different ways they can leverage that show.”

That includes adding a last-minute clip show or extending one of the “Idol’s” regularly scheduled Tuesday or Wednesday episodes by a half-hour, moves the network can easily make if it wants to help drive up ratings.

Buoyed by the success of its dramas “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” plus having the added advantage of airing the Super Bowl in February, ABC was the top network for the season in adults 18 to 49 through Sunday, April 16, with a 4.1 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox was second with a 4.0, followed by CBS (3.8).

The race shifts slightly but stays tight when comparing the networks’ nonsports programming average for the season: CBS and Fox are tied for first place with a 3.8, with ABC averaging a 3.7.

While Fox can build toward the “Idol” finale, which ends with an audience-driven crowning of this year’s American Idol, ABC and CBS don’t have any game-changing events to help give them an extra boost to their ratings beyond the standard end-of-season wrap-ups and cliff-hangers. ABC is making the most of the end of “Alias,” and CBS will pump up the final tribal ceremony for the latest installment of “Survivor,” but none of the season-ending milestone events networks have planned will come close to attracting an “Idol”-like audience, Mr. Adgate said.

“There is no big finale this year,” he said, noting that the final episodes of shows like “Friends” and “Frasier” two years ago and “Everybody Loves Raymond” last season overshadow anything scheduled for this May, which also include the last episodes of “Will & Grace,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “That ’70s Show.”