Maintaining that its May sweeps win establishes “a level playing field” for next fall, NBC officials crowed over their record ninth consecutive May crown while CBS and ABC battled down to the wire in a tie for second place.

NBC’s final numbers were boosted to the tune of about 0.9 rating points by the big “Cheers” finale, but Peacock brass proudly pointed out that the network still held about a half-rating point lead over its rivals even excluding that night from the tally.

Over the four-week Nielsen period corresponding with the local Arbitron sweeps, NBC averaged a 12.5 rating, 22 share (up 4%), ABC and CBS tied with an 11.3/19 each (down 3% and 5%, respectively), and Fox Broadcasting Co. — which averaged just over 14 1/2 hours per week this May, compared to 10 1/2 hours last year — came in with a 7.3/13 (down 5%).

Averages were the same with a day remaining in the Nielsen sweeps except for NBC, which drops to a 12.4/21. If ABC’s Daytime Emmy Awards telecast can put any distance between the alphabet web and CBS, it would mark the Eye network’s first third-place finish in a major May, February or November sweep since November 1990. CBS won the February competition after ABC took the prize last November.

The four-network tally was actually up slightly year-to-year, thanks to Fox’s increased programming, while the three-web total (again, boosted in part by “Cheers”) declined a modest 1% in rating and a single share point.

In terms of prime time alternatives, independent stations — with four hours of additional Fox programming biting into their total — fell 11% from the prior year, while basic cable networks were up 4% and actually surpassed both CBS and ABC with their aggregate rating, an 11.4.

Top basic services, however, were actually down very slightly, demonstrating the cannibalistic nature of new basic and regional services. Pay services and PBS were both essentially flat vs. May ’92.

As for the network competition, NBC not only claimed the household crown but led in adults 18-49 and, perhaps most important to affiliates, provided the best average rating from 10:30-11 p.m. leading into late local newscasts. Including “Cheers,” NBC delivered a 14.0 average rating in that half-hour and led among key-adult demographics, while ABC and CBS tied with an 11.6 each, with ABC on top in terms of younger demos.

NBC recorded the highest average rating and widest victory margin in a May sweep since 1989. In addition to “Cheers,” the web owed much of that to longform programming, including the top-rated made-for-TV movie (“In the Line of Duty: Ambush at Waco,” 18.8/30) and theatrical (“Fried Green Tomatoes,” a huge 23.8/38 ) of the sweeps.

ABC had the only real breakout miniseries success with “The Tommyknockers” ( 16.6/27), while other multiparters “Murder in the Heartland” (13.6/22, ABC), “Love, Honor & Obey” (13.5/22, CBS), “Woman on the Run” (13.4/21, NBC), “Wild Palms” (10.8/18, ABC) and “When Love Kills” (9.7/16, CBS) all turned in unspectacular results.

At a news conference, NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield — reminded by a reporter that NBC won the same competition last May before suffering through a dismal ’92-93 season — said he didn’t anticipate a third-to-first turnaround but feels the network “will be competitive” next year due both to returning series (which held their own in a tight three-way May race won by CBS) and its development crop.

CBS, for example, was down 19% on Monday night year to year, reflecting the vulnerability of its lineup, according to NBC.

CBS projects win

At the CBS affiliates meeting, meanwhile, senior VP of planning and research David Poltrack projected CBS taking its third consecutive ratings crown for the ’93-94 season with a 13.9 rating (up 5% thanks to the ’94 Winter Olympics), with ABC (12.4) and NBC (10.8) holding even with their ’92-93 results.

Recalling that Poltrack refused to concede NBC’s May win last year going into the final night, NBC scheduling chief Preston Beckman presented his own version of Poltrack’s top 10 excuses for CBS’ May results, which included, “The Thomasons spent more time on White House travel than the ‘Designing Women’ finale” and that CBS ranked first in its target demographic, “adults 65-plus.”

Joking about his own status, Littlefield quipped that he had dressed like an NBC page and that many thought he’d “probably be an NBC page by June 1″ if not for the sweeps victory.

On a more practical note, Littlefield said the strong performance of NBC’s “Ambush in Waco” and “Hurricane Andrew” movies — both shot on hurried-up production schedules — demonstrate an advantage to turning around projects in “a timely manner.””Maybe you don’t need three months of post-production,” he said, noting that there “has to be a balance” between such fact-based fare and lighter projects.

Each of the networks preempted roughly one-third of their regular prime time lineup to make room for specials and other programming stunts, a practice that some advertisers feel makes the sweeps results less significant. Stations in smaller, unmetered markets rely on the May sweeps as the basis for setting advertising rates for a longer period of time than the other major survey months.

Breaking out the top cable services, TNT (1.7/3) again led the way, followed by HBO (1.5/2), USA (1.4/2), TBS (1.3/2), ESPN (0.9/1), Showtime (0.6/1) and CNN (0.5/1).

As a footnote, Fox tried a special “America’s Most Wanted” at 9 p.m. Tuesday — its projected time period next fall — and drew a 5.0/8. Those modest figures still represented Fox’s best performance in that hour since “Tribeca” premiered on March 23.

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