ABC Returns to Top of Heap in Sweeps

Dec 4, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The last time ABC won November sweeps, it was 1999 and the network ran its new hit game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” 18 days in a row to pull it off.

Now, after years of struggle to regain its footing, ABC has once again finished in the top spot in the key 18 to 49 demographic, earning a 4.1 average rating.

This time, ABC’s success is due to an enviable slate of dramas and unscripted shows rather than stunting a single hit ad nauseam. Even its typical November ratings driver “Monday Night Football,” which migrated to ESPN this year, wasn’t necessary to achieve a first-place finish. Instead, credit goes to the likes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

“It’s an affirmation for all the people who worked really hard for the network to turn it around,” said Steve McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment. “When we had success with `Lost’ and `Desperate,” people said two shows were driving the success. Now you see it’s the whole portfolio.”

The only wrinkle in ABC’s November numbers is ongoing viewer erosion from Wednesday night linchpin “Lost,” whose planned four-month break to avoid reruns seems increasingly risky. Next year, Mr. McPherson is considering adopting the model popularized by Fox’s “24”: running the entire season of “Lost” without reruns or a scheduling break, launching in the fall-or even in January.

“That would be a great way to run that show,” he said. “We think about that. This year, having `Lost’ off the fall schedule entirely seemed like one risk too many to take. But now we have more strength in our schedule.”

ABC’s victory left CBS and NBC in a tie for second place with a 3.8, though each network’s sweeps story has mitigating factors.

In addition to CBS’s second-place finish, the network claimed a victory last week after winning among total viewers for the sixth consecutive year. But the network was down 14 percent in the demo compared to last November, more than any other network, partly due to having a strong lineup of specials last year.

“It’s not the shows, there’s a lot of specials we didn’t have this year,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of program operations at CBS. “This year we wanted to go for stability instead of big miniseries.”

At NBC, second-place spot almost feels like first. NBC is up 15 percent in the demo due to “Sunday Night Football” and launching fall’s biggest breakout hit, “Heroes.” It’s the only network with year-to-year growth. The only caveat: Take football out of the equation and NBC is essentially flat. But in a season where every major network is down (even sweeps winner ABC is off 7 percent), flat is reason to celebrate.

“The big news is how well NBC did,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research of Horizon Media. “If you look at the sweeps last year, they were a full rating point behind where they are now. They made vast strides. I’d say ABC and NBC are winners, and CBS and Fox are disappointments.”

For The CW, which had to launch a new channel while competing with the twin ghosts of The WB and UPN, the numbers were troubling early last week. The network was averaging a 1.4 in the demo as of Nov. 27, with three days of the sweep to go. That’s 7 percent below UPN’s 1.5 average last November, and flat with The WB’s 1.4. The CW can argue that maintaining their shows’ original audience is a victory, but any loss is tough to spin.

In the final two days of the sweep, however, The CW was blessed with sudden season highs for “Gilmore Girls,” “Veronica Mars,” “One Tree Hill” and “Americas Next Top Model,” pushing the network’s final average to a 1.5, even with UPN from last year and above The WB.

The network’s ongoing claim that younger audiences found the channel first (thus early gains among 18 to 34 demographic) and that older viewers will soon follow seemed to gain credibility.

“We’re looking at the sweep as [The CW] finally showing some momentum,” said Mr. Kahl, who in addition to CBS also oversees scheduling at The CW. “A lot of our shows hit series highs during sweeps, which tells us people are still finding the network.”

Final sweeps numbers for MyNetworkTV’s first November sweep are not yet available since its programs are stripped Monday through Friday and Nielsen issues their ratings on a weekly basis. Moving forward, each channel has a unique set of challenges. The CW has to launch some original shows rather than simply promote favorites from The WB and UPN. NBC needs to build on its newfound momentum. Fox has to pull its usual springtime resurrection with “American Idol.” CBS will likely seek to program some fresher series. MyNet needs to expand its viewership base with its second round of telenovelas launching this week.

As for ABC, the channel has to defend its lead, which won’t be easy with Fox gearing up for its January onslaught. One thing is for certain: The channel has learned its lesson from its “Millionaire” days and, this time, will not rest on its laurels.

“If you were to ask me what are the odds of winning November sweeps after losing `Monday Night Football,’ I would have said the odds are 100 to 1,” Mr. McPherson said. “It’s based on taking some big risks … you have to take risks, and most have paid off.”