Sweeps Ratings Stir Tea Leaves

May 28, 2007  •  Post A Comment

In a month of prime-time programming that specialized in shocking twists and cliffhangers, some of the biggest May sweeps surprises were in the Nielsen returns.
As networks made a last mad dash for the season’s finish line, who would have expected the season’s third-place finisher, ABC, to suddenly surge to its most-watched May in six years? Who would have thought Fox’s two-part “American Idol” finale would plunge a steep 20 percent compared to last year? And who would have predicted super-stable CBS would suffer a double-digit decline for the month?
After several months of ratings malaise, the final lap of the season may shake up expectations for next fall. Third-place ABC suddenly looks solid to come strong out of the gate once again. NBC proved there is no firm bottom in the Nielsens, even for major broadcasters. Fox has shown that its once-invincible “Idol” franchise is just as vulnerable to market trends and casting setbacks as any reality show.
By the numbers, Fox won the May sweeps by a wide margin, averaging 4.1 to ABC’s 3.7 rating among viewers age 18 to 49. With the victory, Fox has officially won the broadcast season three years in a row.
CBS came in third in the sweeps rating period, used to help set TV station advertising rates, with a 3.1; NBC was fourth with a 2.5.
The most interesting sweeps news wasn’t in the averages, however, but in the percentage change in ratings compared with last year. CBS and Fox fell 16 percent; NBC was down a depressing 22 percent. But ABC-which had a fine May last year, too-was up 3 percent, giving the network bragging rights despite a second-place sweeps finish. Also, ABC came in second to CBS in total viewers.
“The surprise was that `Dancing With the Stars’ in the final weeks was as strong as it was-that bodes well for ABC going forward,” said Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz Television Group. “ABC was able to take the assets they have and rally in their finales.”
Until recent weeks, ABC was struggling to pull itself out of the slump it fell into last January. Though the “Dancing” finale (6.7 rating among adults 18-49) was down from last year, it rallied a sharp 40 percent for the finale compared to the previous week.
Likewise, the finale for “Lost,” which hit a two-month string of series lows following its winter hiatus, bounced up to an unexpectedly healthy 5.9 for its two-hour finish (although it was still down versus last year). “The Bachelor: Officer and a Gentleman” performed strongly (4.8), earning its best rating since February 2006, and the “Grey’s Anatomy” finale hit a high note (9.1).
“It wasn’t until late April and early May that all of our assets were back in originals,” said Jeff Bader, ABC’s executive VP of scheduling. “It wasn’t a lot of specials [that boosted May], it was all core originals, which bodes well for next year.”
ABC’s story this month adds weight to the conclusion that networks need a steady stream of originals to prevent a ratings collapse and that programming breaks aren’t as well tolerated as in previous years. On the other hand, it also proved that a network can recover from such a slump with the right combination of programming.
Unfortunately, NBC lacked that combination. Already straining to boost its fourth-place numbers from last fall, the network failed to recover after shows began coming back from hiatus and extended breaks this spring. Instead, the network sank deeper into the Nielsen bog. Lead series “Heroes” managed a last-minute comeback, rebounding to pre-hiatus levels for the finale to earn a 6.2 rating, but many NBC shows failed to revive.
Vince Manze, NBC’s president of program planning, scheduling and strategy, did not attempt to spin the unspinnable. “On to November,” he said.
Among the smaller networks, The CW improved its ratings slightly from forebears The WB and UPN, scoring a 1.2. MyNetworkTV showed some gains, averaging a 0.4 rating, up from 0.2 during the February sweeps.
‘Idol’ by the Numbers
The top hit of the season burst from the gate stronger than ever, then sank to underperforming versus last year. Here’s how this season of Fox’s “American Idol” stacks up:
Number of on-air hours:
Last season: 45
This season: 50 (+11%)
Average adults 18-49 rating:
Last year: 12.4
This year: 11.7 (-6%)
Average total viewers:
Last year: 30.2 million
This year: 29.5 million (-2%)
Two-part premiere average:
Last year: 14.1
This year: 15.6 (+11%)
Two-part finale average:
Last year: 13.2
This year: 10.6 (-20%)
Greatest demo gain:
Adults 50 and older (+8%)
Greatest demo loss:
Men 18 to 34 (-16%)
Median viewer age:
2006: 39 2007: 41

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