Three-web erosion stemmed

CBS has closed out its first November sweeps win in nine years, while the bigger picture shows a leveling off in network viewing — a trend that’s held during Nielsen surveys going back to 1991 after a period of steady erosion.

The combination of a strong Saturday lineup (set in motion after last November’s sweeps with the January arrival of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”) and longform events like “A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion” and “Return to Lonesome Dove” put CBS over the top. ABC — the victor a year ago thanks in part to its five-hour “The Jacksons” miniseries — got ambushed by the disastrous two-parter “JFK: Reckless Youth” and subpar “Monday Night Football” stats.

NBC can take some pride in year-to-year improvement despite its third-place finish, which included a strong second-place showing among the key demographic of adults 18-49 and a 7% increase for its Thursday lineup, despite the absence of “Cheers.”

Fox Broadcasting Co., meanwhile, exhibited the biggest decline year-to-year, although it’s worth noting the weblet expanded to a full seven nights of programming and 15 hours per week — up 15% in volume fromthe 13 hours it offered on average in November ’92.

Household averages for the 28-day survey were CBS, a 13.0 rating/21 share (up 2%); ABC, 12.7/21 (down 6%); NBC, 12.1/20 (up 3%); and Fox, 7.5/12 (down 9%). Demographic standings for the 18-49 bracket went ABC (7.5), NBC (7.3), CBS (6.8) and Fox (5.2).

In addition to ranking third among the key sales demographic of adults 18-49, CBS also brought up the rear with its 10:30-11 p.m. average — the half-hour leading into late local newscasts and, from a business standpoint, perhaps the most significant sweeps number to local stations. “The November sweeps is not a battle (among) the four networks,” maintained ABC Entertainment prez Ted Harbert , ensconced at meetings with his web’s affiliate board. “The November sweeps is a battle (among) the affiliated stations of the four networks.”

Slow going for Fox

Fox did finish ahead of CBS among adults 18-34, but, with its expanded lineup , made relatively little headway in the upper half of the 18-49 group, one of its stated goals at the season’s outset. Using some creative accounting, Fox pointed out that the weblet ranked first among adults 18-34, excluding Monday and Tuesday, its two lowest-rated nights.

Three-network viewing in general held even with last year, down less than 1% compared with ’92 ratings and even in share. The achievement is more impressive taking into account that this year’s sweeps included the Thanksgiving weekend, traditionally a time of lower HUT (homes using TV) levels.

In fact, four-network levels are exactly even with last year when Fox is included on a prorated basis based on its expanded lineup.

Alternatives to the networks, meanwhile, have leveled off after a period of explosive growth. For example, the aggregate tally of top basic cable services such as USA, TBS and ESPN was even with November ’92.

Overall, basic cable totaled a 12.4/19, up 2%; non-Fox indies averaged a 9.2 (down 4%); pay services rang up a 2.9 (up 7%, with gains entirely attributable to a surge by HBO); and PBS was flat with a 2.5 rating.

While most attention is placed on the three-network sweeps competition, NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer cited those competing channels as being equally significant.

“Part of our task is to create distinctive programs that bring people back from that ‘other’ category,” he said.

Ohlmeyer added that NBC had succeeded in fulfilling its key challenge to “stop the slide” the Peacock had suffered in primetime and narrow the gap with the competition.

In addition, network officials note the three are grouped together closely enough that virtually any sweep can be decided by a couple of major programming events, making the surveys less indicative of day-in, day-out performance.

That’s a change after NBC dominated the competition from May 1985 to November ’91, winning 18 out of 20 major sweeps periods. Since then, CBS has won three of the past six surveys, with NBC taking the last two May crowns and ABC on top last November.

“We’ve got parity,” proclaimed NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

Both ABC and NBC also rapped CBS for airing more specials and stunts in achieving the win. Harbert, who acknowledged using the same strategy last year, said his goal this time was to be competitive but “not pull every stunt, every trick that will destabilize your series schedule.”

The CBS win was achieved with gains Saturday and Sunday nights and despite a 10% decline in households Monday, a network stronghold. But CBS senior VP of planning and research, David Poltrack, maintained the Monday lineup has merely undergone a “downward adjustment” since the Murphy Brown-Dan Quayle flap boosted ratings last fall, and that its performance is even with levels for the latter half of the ’92-93 season.

In another creative research wrinkle, the exec added that the Monday lineup hasn’t declined in terms of socioeconomic factors that determine desirability among advertisers. “We see no indication that we have a problem on Monday night, ” he said.

ABC’s final charge on Wednesday included another whopping rating for “Home Improvement” (23.8/35) and, most significant to network mavens, the highest rating yet for freshman comedy “Grace Under Fire” (18.8/29), retaining 79% of that lead-in.

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