NBC victory highlights post-'Seinfeld' challenge

The historic final episode of “Seinfeld” has handed NBC a heady victory that both symbolizes the Peacock’s recent ratings dominance and reminds the network that the road ahead may get a little bumpy without its star performer.

With a monster “Seinfeld” number on its side, NBC has soared to massive wins for both the week (the last of the 1997-98 season) and the May sweeps. In fact, NBC would have been an easy winner in the May sweeps even without the “Seinfeld” finale.

But NBC’s magical May doesn’t erase the memory of a November sweeps loss to CBS in homes. Nor does it reverse a season-long downward trend that has NBC finishing behind year-ago figures despite the addition this past season of the Super Bowl and World Series. Nor does it change the fact that few valuable pieces have been added to the NBC lineup in the past 12 months.

So the Peacock has special reason to savor its stellar sweeps performance. Now that the net’s crown jewel, “Seinfeld,” is gone and in this era of incessant network erosion, there may never be a month like this again for NBC or any other network.

Last week, NBC earned its largest edge over second place (76%) in the adults 18-49 demo in a week without major sports help since at least the fall of 1987, when NBC began tracking such statistics.

It was a week filled with series farewells, stunts and season-closers, but “Seinfeld” dwarfed all comers. In “Seinfeld’s” shadow, the wedding episOode of “The Nanny” and this week’s “Murphy Brown” finale (see separate story, page 14) also brought a good deal of cheer to CBS, but ABC’s low-rated “Ellen” farewell ends up ranking as last week’s biggest disappointment.

Overall network viewership was down last week, even with NBC’s big “Seinfeld” surge. ABC was hardest hit, fading to its second-lowest-rated regular-season week ever. WB had no such problems, equaling its second-highest weeklong rating ever with the week’s strongest gains vs. last year.

With just two nights left to count in the May sweeps, averages are: NBC, an 11.3 rating, 19 share (up 8% vs. results for the same period last year); CBS, 9.0/15 (down 13%); ABC, 7.6/13 (down 14%); Fox, 6.9/12 (down 4%). In adults 18-49, it’s: NBC, 7.6/22 (up 9%); Fox, 5.0/15 (down 4%); ABC, 4.3/12 (down 20%); CBS, 3.8/11 (down 14%).

NBC notes that discounting the night of the “Seinfeld” finale, the Peacock still shows increases this May vs. last and leads second-place Fox by a hefty 31% advantage in the 18-49 demo (the edge is 54% including the “Seinfeld” Thursday). But sweeps stunts such as “Merlin” played a big role in those increases, and the Peacock’s regular-schedule edge will clearly be whittled down after “Seinfeld’s” departure.

Fox has a chance to finish second in the month’s adults 25-54 race, which would be a first for Fox in a sweeps month. With two nights left to count, Fox was tied for second in the 25-54 demo with ABC (4.8/13 each) and narrowly ahead of CBS (4.6/12).

Last week’s adults 18-49 averages were: NBC, 8.6/24 (up 19%); Fox, 4.9/14 (down 8%); ABC, 4.1/11 (down 13%); CBS, 4.0/11 (down 17%); WB, 1.9/5 (up 58%); UPN, 1.4/4 (down 18%). With three nights left to count in season-to-date results, Fox is a tenth of a rating point ahead of ABC, apparently headed for its first-ever second-place 18-49 finish in a full season.

National primetime 18-49 averages for the top cable services last week were: TNT, 1.0/3 (down 29%); TBS, 0.8/2 (up 33%); USA, 0.6/2 (even); ESPN, 0.5/1 (down 29%); Discovery, 0.4/1 (even); Lifetime, 0.4/1 (even); Nickelodeon, 0.4/1 (up 33%); Nashville Network, 0.4/1 (up 33%).

Sunday

Fox enjoyed a 5-share margin of victory in adults 18-49, as “The Simpsons” topped its year-ago finale by 8% in that demo and “King of the Hill” improved by 15% (Daily Variety, May 19). “X-Files” slipped by 5% vs. last year’s finale, but still dominated its hour with an unearthly 66% advantage over its closest 18-49 pursuer.

CBS glided above the pack in homes, though a strong two-hour “Touched by an Angel” actually descended 9% below its year-ago season-ending rating.

ABC failed to put much of scare into the competition with “Creature, Part 1,” but did manage its top Sunday-pic 18-49 rating since Feb. 22 (“The Wedding, Part 1″).

Saturday

NBC took Saturday in adults 18-49 as “The Pretender” beat its year-ago season finale by 2% in that demo. CBS held on to first in homes despite an 11% drop vs. last-year for the season-closing “Dr. Quinn,” which apparently will be left off the CBS fall schedule.

Fox’s “Cops” looked out of shape, sagging to its lowest regular-season Saturday 8-8:30 rating ever. “America’s Most Wanted” also softened to its lowest in-season tally since Oct. 28, 1995.

Friday

NBC’s Daytime Emmys walked off with the Friday honors, despite equaling the kudocast’s lowest-yet primetime households rating.

Compared with the last time they aired on an NBC Friday back in 1995, the Daytime Emmys broke even in homes and were up 6% in adults 18-49.

That awards telecast teamed with “Nash Bridges” to dump “20/20″ into third place in its Friday 10-11 p.m. hour for the first time in five years, since May 14, 1993. It was the first time “Bridges” ever topped “20/20″ in homes. ABC did better at 8:30 when the season-closing “Boy Meets World” equaled its best share since Feb. 28, 1997.

“Millennium’s” season finale settled for that series’ third-lowest firstrun rating to date.

Thursday

“Seinfeld” ruled, amassing six times the combined 18-49 rating of the ABC-CBS-Fox competition (38.7/73 vs. 6.1/12) (Daily Variety, May 18). Even for the night as a whole, NBC earned nearly five times the competition’s combined 18-49 score.

“Seinfeld” snagged the fourth-highest series finale rating since May 1960, tied for 61st among all U.S. broadcasts of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. “Seinfeld” also tied for the second-highest-rated non-sports telecast since November 1983’s “The Day After,” behind the “Cheers” conclusion and tied with a “Cosby” episode.

“ER” followed with a series-record rating. In total viewers, it was the fourth “most-watched” drama in U.S. tv history, behind only two 1980 episodes of “Dallas” and the “Magnum, P.I.” finale (though the “inflation” of population increases benefits “ER” in comparisons with earlier dramas).

Wednesday

The wedding episode of “The Nanny” led CBS to the nightlong households victory with the Eye’s best regular-series rating that hour since the premiere of “Women of the House” Jan. 4, 1995 (Daily Variety, May 15). Slot rivals “Drew Carey” and “Dharma & Greg” hit lowest-yet firstrun ratings.

Fox led the night in adults 18-49 with its top Wednesday score in 10 weeks, despite a 10% drop vs. last year for the “Party of Five” season finale.

ABC’s “Ellen” wrapped with disappointing numbers, its second-lowest firstrun rating ever and ABC’s lowest in that slot with firstrun entertainment programming since July 12, 1989. Against that diminished competition, NBC’s “3rd Rock” rolled to its best numbers since Jan. 28.

Tuesday

Fox’s reality specials led their 8-10 p.m. block in homes and adults 18-49 while NBC won in 8-11 p.m. averages thanks to the boost of “Seinfeld” cast interviews on “Dateline” (Daily Variety, May 14).

Fox’s top-rated Tuesday lineup in 10 weeks sent such heavyweights as “Home Improvement” and “Mad About You” to lowest-ever firstrun ratings. “Soul Man,” “Home Improvement” and “Something So Right” all fell to what are apparently ABC’s worst-ever ratings in those slots with regular firstrun fare.

“Dawson’s Creek” flowed to WB record ratings in women 18-34 and 18-49 while UPN hit its lowest Tuesday rating with firstrun fare since Nov. 21, 1995.

Monday

Strong Nielsen testimony from “Witness to the Mob, Part 2″ gave NBC the May 11 victory, its sixth Monday win in a row (Daily Variety, May 13). CBS got its best Monday numbers since November with “Only Love.” The “7th Heaven” season finale tied WB’s highest previous rating ever.

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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