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Sweeps Win Adds Up To Cachet Not Cash

The February sweeps are on their way to a photo finish and CBS, coming from behind, may take the crown by default.

But with all three webs running neck and neck, a sweeps victory this season will do more for the winner’s image than its bottom line.

“When NBC was the clear No. 1 – when it won all those sweeps periods in a row – it had more than bragging rights,” says Paul Schulman, prez of the media buying service Paul Schulman Co. “It could demand a premium for its programming. Now you have three guys out there who all have hits.”

“Who wins a single sweeps doesn’t have much tangible impact on national advertisers,” says Betsy Frank, Saatchi & Saatchi senior v.p. “But this is a perception business, and if CBS can declare a victory, it will have an impact on its image in the marketplace.”

“It’s not like the old days when [ the networks] really loaded up the schedule with miniseries and the best theatricals,” says Backer Spielvogel Bates exec v.p. Bill Croasdale, “but they still give the local stations some programming and promotion to hype the ratings. Who wins a sweeps doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. We buy programs for our clients, not networks.”

CBS already is touting its sweeps performance as if the race were over. But CBS execs nevertheless are cautious about the impact of a victory on the network’s revenue picture. As with all the nets, the war and the poor economy are biting at CBS’ bottom line; the Tiffany web also is saddled with a multibillion-dollar sports bill.

“To say the least, this is a difficult period sales-wise,” says George Schweitzer, CBS senior v.p. of communications. “Profit-wise [ our sweeps performance] isn’t going to have any immediate impact.”

CBS, however, is the lone Big Three web to show an uptick in the ratings. NBC and ABC both show significant declines, as Big Three network share has tumbled 6% from the same period last year. Some of the slide is because of the Fox weblet, which is up 4%, and the cable universe, led by the cable war network CNN.

Even if NBC can eke out a slight victory over CBS in the primetime Nielsen sweeps – the two webs are tied at a 12.8 rating/21 share, followed by ABC’s 12/20 through 19 days of the four-week sweeps – CBS still will be able to claim a small victory. While the Peacock web is down a scary 18% from the same period last year, and ABC is down 8%, CBS is up 4%.

But with sweeps increasingly about image, not ad rates, all the webs are prepping for the post-sweeps propaganda wars.

NBC’s number crunchers like to note that if you factor out the specials of the webs’ lineups, they finish more than a ratings point in front of CBS and ABC.

And ABC already has started a whisper campaign – in preparation for a CBS win – that CBS was down so low, it only had one way to go. While it may lag in household numbers, ABC also is touting its dominance in the key 18-49 demographic so dear to advertisers.

“The household numbers say who America is watching,” counters CBS’ Schweitzer. “We may not be leading [ in the 18-49 demographic], but we’ve made big gains, while everyone else has slipped. There’s a sea change in our direction.”

Tom Bierbaum In Hollywood Contributed To This Report.

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