CBS plucks, NBC clucks

Eye spies sweet sweeps win, but Peacock still tops demos

CBS isn’t quite ready to claim victory in the November sweeps households race, excepting an occasional slip of the tongue, but the Eye net does agree it would take an “extraordinary” rally by NBC to stop CBS from claiming its first sweeps victory in three years.

In a telephone conference call with the press Tuesday, CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves also invoked the words of the late Brandon Tartikoff to tout the Eye’s demo-poor, households-rich sweeps performance.

NBC followed with its own conference call, at which it responded that the Peacock is still far ahead in the races that matter most to advertisers, and, in fact, it’s Fox that has NBC looking over its shoulder.

And in yet another conference call, Fox agreed with that NBC assessment and vowed that it’s now “only a matter of time” before Fox takes over the primetime lead in the key adults 18-49 demographic.

Through Monday, 26 nights into the 28-night sweeps, CBS holds the households lead with a 10.5 rating, 17 share (up in rating by 3% vs. results for the same period last year), a relatively solid 0.3 rating points ahead of NBC’s 10.2/16 (down 11%). Then it’s ABC’s 9.3/15 (down 7%) and Fox’s 8.1/13 (up 4%). NBC has won the last eight major sweeps by this measure.

In adults 18-49, NBC, 6.9/18 (down 5%) is assured a first-place finish and surprising Fox (6.2/16, up 9%) has stunned ABC (5.5/14, down 5%) by clinching second. CBS (4.4/11, down 4%) is still a spectator in that race.

CBS is more competitive, but still fourth in its target demo, adults 25-54, where 26-night sweeps averages are: NBC, 7.4/18 (down 9%); ABC, 6.1/15 (down 3%); Fox, 6.0/14 (up 7%); and CBS, 5.5/13 (even).

NBC notes that its adults 18-49 winning streak remains intact at nine straight major sweeps, the longest such streak since the mid-1980s, and that the Peacock’s adults 25-54 margin of victory this November will be the highest in a November sweeps in 10 years.

CBS scrupulously avoided claiming victory in its conference call, though CBS Entertainment prez Moonves once referred to such a victory as a given before quickly correcting himself.

Moonves was defending the importance of such a household victory against those, especially at NBC, who say demographic results are more important. Moonves cited a 1986 Associated Press article in which former NBC Entertainment chairman Tartikoff was quoted as calling the households lead “the Super Bowl” of primetime TV, and commenting, “Demographics are the last refuge of programmers. You quote demographics when you don’t have household ratings.”

Peoplemeter era

During the NBC conference, that net’s entertainment prez, Warren Littlefield, called Moonves’ use of an 11-year-old Tartikoff quote “truly a bit thin.” He noted that much has changed since 1986, including the dawn of the peoplemeter era with its daily demographic reports on network performance.

A CBS spokesman noted that Tartikoff again endorsed broad-appeal network strategies in 1993 when he commented, “If you’re an entity blessed with close to full coverage of the nation, why not use it to try to get as many people in the tent as possible?”

Perhaps the most biting indictment of CBS’ current older skew came during the Fox conference call, when media buyer Bill Croasdale, president of national broadcasting at Western International Media, said, “If I were going to sell an arthritis remedy or adult diapers, I’d go to CBS … But most advertisers want adults 18-49.”

Croasdale did salute CBS for turning around “a network that was really dead” and generating a higher “circulation” that will help CBS launch new shows and ultimately improve its demos.

Keys to CBS’ seemingly impending November household win include the month’s top-rated movie, “What the Deaf Man Heard,” and the two top-rated multiple-parters, “Bella Mafia” and “The Third Twin.”

(ABC’s “Cinderella” was the top-rated film in adults 18-49 and NBC’s monstrously disappointing “House of Frankenstein” was still the top-rated multi in that demo.)

Moonves also emphasizes the patience CBS has shown with such shows as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “JAG” and “Promised Land,” which have blossomed somewhat this season, and its Friday success with the reality spex “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and “Candid Camera,” both now ordered as series.

CBS’ biggest growth spots are Sundays (up 14% vs. last November in adults 25-54) and the skillfully counterprogrammed Thursday (up 26%).

Peter Roth, president of Fox Entertainment, predicted that, if Fox can keep executing its current strategy as well as it has in November, “we will realize our stated goal of becoming the No. 1 network among adults 18-49.”

NBC’s Littlefield acknowledged, “When we look over our shoulders, they (Fox) are right there. Yes, we congratulate them on what they’ve achieved.” Fox has, in fact, whittled away more than half of NBC’s year-ago November 18-49 advantage.

Another media buyer attending the Fox conference, Paul Schulman, president of the Paul Schulman Co., commended Fox’s progress.

Referring to “X-Files,” “King of the Hill,” “Ally McBeal,” “Party of Five” and “The Simpsons,” Schulman commented, “Fox has five shows doing killer things on their air right now,” and added that some of those shows can in the future be shifted to other nights to expand Fox’s growing power base.

Despite winning the month in most key demos, NBC has sustained losses by virtually all measures in November, and Littlefield admits that’s disappointing. “Corporately we’re kicking our butts,” he said. “We always want to see growth and improvement. … The competition did more stunting than we did and that was effective in getting more audience and making our life more difficult.”

According to NBC estimates, the Peacock ran 92% “regular programming” (including series aired out of their regular slots) during the sweeps, while CBS, ABC, CBS and Fox aired 85%, 84% and 83% respectively.

Littlefield agreed that the biggest NBC trouble spot is Sunday, and said a new lineup for that night will be announced in December and in place by January.

NBC touted its ratings growth and continued leadership in late night and said it’s the only net up among women 18-49 in daytime.

ABC was the only major net to skip a conference call Tuesday, but a net spokesman noted the Alphabet net has significantly slowed the rate of its losses this November vs. last. ABC aired three of the sweeps’ top-five single-episode movies in adults 18-49, “Cinderella,” “Before Women Had Wings” and “The Santa Clause.”

WB generated the biggest news among the emerging weblets, earning its highest sweeps-month rating ever (a projected 3.0/5) and the biggest increase vs. last year (up 7%) among the six broadcast nets and netlets.

The gains are especially impressive since WB alone relied 100% on its regular schedule.

UPN is still outscoring WB in key demos, despite roughly a 9% drop this month vs. its year-ago 18-49 averages.

CBS exec VP of planning and research Dave Poltrack noted that the four-net households share dropped 4% vs. last November, from a 63 to a 60, while basic cable improved by 10%, from a 31 to a 34. He adds that the top-10 basic cablers picked up just 0.3 rating points, an increase CBS matches by itself.

In the 10:30 p.m.-11 p.m. half-hour, which leads into local news, NBC enjoyed the sweeps’ highest 25-54 rating, an 8.6, followed by ABC’s 6.2 and CBS’ 5.8.

‘Major stunt’

NBC’s Littlefield promised a one-hour “major stunt, major event” episode of “3rd Rock from the Sun” to air after the late January Super Bowl. He said he’s confident “Rock’s” Wednesday standing will improve significantly after that boost of “Super” sampling.

Each household rating point represents an estimated 980,000 homes, or 1% of the country’s TV homes. Each adults 18-49 rating point reps 1.23 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total. A share is the same sort of percentage, except it measures only the homes or viewers watching TV during the timeslot involved.

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