NBC’s a sweeping beauty

ABC holds on to 2nd place in key demo

NBC has squeezed out a narrow households victory and dominated the key demos in Nielsen’s May sweeps, a hyper-competitive month that demonstrated the growing importance of “event” programming to the nets.

With NBC’s “The Odyssey,” CBS’ “The Last Don” and ABC’s “The Shining” and “Ellen” attracting hefty audience boosts, the Big Three are expected to finish just 1% behind their year-ago combined 18-49 results, a solid improvement vs. the 1996-97 season’s 9% falloff.

ABC has held on to second place in the sweeps adults 18-49 race, after historic and galling losses to Fox in the last two sweeps months.

Fox still expects to prevail by that key measure in May when counting only the 15 “common time” hours programmed by the News Corp.- owned net.

With May 20 and 21 scores yet to be figured into final sweeps averages, CBS issued projections Wednesday for the sweeps month that concede the households victory to NBC despite a month-long neck-and-neck race between the Peacock and upstart CBS. Helping push NBC over the top was a season high Tuesday rating from the childbirth episode of “Mad About You.”

Projected sweeps household results are: NBC, a 10.6 rating, 18 share (down in rating by 11% vs. May 1996 results); CBS, 10.2/17 (up 6%); ABC, 8.9/16 (down 4%); Fox, 7.1/12 (down 1%).

Adults 18-49 projections are: NBC, a 7.0 rating (down 8%); ABC, 5.5 (up 4%); Fox, 5.2 (up 4%); CBS, 4.4 (up 5%).

Projected adults 25-54 averages are: NBC, a 7.4 rating (down 9%); ABC, 6.0 (up 3%); CBS, 5.3 (up 6%); Fox, 4.9 (up 2%).

Final figures are due out from Nielsen on Thursday.

It’s NBC’s eighth straight major sweeps victory and fifth in a row with a margin of a full ratings point or more in the key adults 18-49 demographic. NBC says it won with mostly regular programming — 91% of the sked, highest percentage among the Big Four.

Though still fourth in adults 18-49 for the month, CBS may have had the best sweeps news of all — the biggest year-to-year gains among the Big Four in adults 18-49, 25-54 and households, as well as the close second place finish behind NBC in homes.

The Eye, in fact, lopped off 83% of NBC’s year-ago households advantage. In May 1996, NBC led CBS by 2.3 rating points, but this month the gap will shrink to an estimated 0.4 rating points. The races didn’t tighten nearly as much in the demos that count most with advertisers: CBS reduced NBC’s leads by 32% and 24% respectively in 25-54 and 18-49 results.

Several net programmers who briefed the press Wednesday agreed this sweeps demonstrated the growing importance of “event” programming such as the “Mad” birth episode and the “coming-out” episode of “Ellen.”

NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield thinks the heightened competition of this year’s sweeps shows the competition has been studying and learning from NBC’s sweeps month tactics — highly promoted miniseries, the “theme-ing” of nightlong schedules and stunts such as NBC’s 3-D episode of “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

NBC West Coast prez Don Ohlmeyer observed that NBC programmed two of the three multiple-parters that aired in May ’96, and two of the seven that aired in May ’97. Given the increase in competitiveness this May, NBC is pleased with its sweeps win despite the year-to-year declines, Littlefield said.

CBS notes that its owned and affiliated stations showed households improvements vs. year-ago results in 28 of 33 metered markets, while all 33 NBC stations were down. ABC was up in 17 markets and Fox in nine.

In a telephone press conference Wednesday, CBS Entertainment prez Leslie Moonves renewed his criticism of the sweeps process, which forces the nets to funnel more than half the original episodes of most of their series into the three sweeps months. CBS has been talking to Nielsen about altering the sweeps procedure but sees no prospects for significant change in the short-term future, Moonves said.

If Nielsen could eliminate or modify its procedures for the sweeps months (periods in which Nielsen surveys all local markets across the country), the nets would have a stronger chance of programming aggressively for a 52-week broadcast year, Moonves said. As things stand, he doubts the attempt by Fox to significantly expand firstrun programming this summer will pan out economically “in the long run.”

NBC exex noted that each of that net’s five latenight programs won their time periods during the sweeps and showed 18-49 growth vs. May 1996. In daytime, NBC finished the month first in women 18-34 for a second straight sweep and passed CBS for second in women 18-49, NBC’s best major-sweep finish in that demo on record.

CBS’ big sweeps gun was “The Last Don.” Moonves said Wednesday he’s interested in a “Don” prequel or other future projects from author Mario Puzo, but noted that Puzo’s age, 82, may interfere with such plans. According to Moonves, Puzo, in a phone call to the CBS exec, said he felt the “Don” miniseries was as good as “The Godfather” film.

Moonves also mentioned that another “Dallas” reunion vidpic is in the works.

Each household rating point represents an estimated 970,000 households, or 1% of the country’s TV homes. The share is the same sort of percentage, except that it’s measured against only the households in which TV is being watched during the timeslot involved.

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