It’s taken CBS five years to climb back to the top of the ratings hill, but the next battle may be even tougher — convincing Madison Avenue that its accomplishment means something.
It’s NBC that’s currently wrapping up the 1998-99 primetime Nielsen season unchallenged in the demographics most closely tied to ad revenue. What CBS has conquered are the historical “bragging-rights” measures — households and total viewers.
This season marks the first time the top network in households and total viewers has finished in fourth place among the adults 18-49 demo that advertisers most often target.
CBS’ competitors were quick to dismiss the industry importance of the Eye web’s households crown, but CBS TV CEO Leslie Moonves said there’s tangible and growing value to delivering more eyeballs than the other nets.
‘An impossible dream’
Finishing first seemed to be “an impossible dream just a few short seasons ago,” Moonves said. “The future is looking very bright both creatively and financially. … We’re going to make a profit this year. We didn’t make a profit in 1998. We’re going to make more money because of our total viewers.”
The CBS topper said his net is gaining considerable stature on Madison Avenue now that it can claim to be the “most watched” network. According to Moonves, innovative approaches at the Eye are allowing CBS to sell some shows (“Diagnosis Murder,” “60 Minutes” and its spinoff, some Sunday films) based on total viewers or households, not the demos.
Moonves also said CBS won’t change its strategy of targeting adults 35 and older, in part because everyone else is chasing younger viewers, and CBS wants to be distinctive.
While finishing first in viewers overall doesn’t automatically translate into additional ad revenue, some media analysts argue that being top dog still has value.
“It’s going to help them,” said Steve Sternberg, senior VP of research for Gotham-based ad agency TN Media. “Even in the industry, it gives people the impression that CBS is on the right track.”
Homes win stock boost
Sternberg said it’s also possible that the positive press resulting from the CBS win in total viewers may aid the Eye’s bottom line — by boosting the price of CBS stock.
“The press still harps on household ratings,” he said.
That’s one reason NBC has been particularly aggressive this week in spreading the word that it remains the nation’s top net in terms of demo.
“They’ve been No. 1 (in homes),” said Sternberg. “To fall out of first (doesn’t) look good.”
In a subsequent ABC telephone conference, ABC Entertainment prexy Jamie Tarses disputed any claim of a developing advertiser shift away from young-adult demos.
Comes down to demos
“We’re still competing for that same audience. Advertisers have not changed their way of doing business,” Tarses said. She thinks CBS’ progress on Madison Avenue is not the result of a change in advertiser perspective but of CBS strides in those key demos.
For the May sweeps, NBC has managed to beat CBS on the Eye’s homes turf and dominated the 18-49 demo. The pack definitely closed in, though, with CBS the only Big Four net projected to emerge from the sweeps with a households increase over last year and ABC projecting the only increase in adults 18-49.
Fox may limp
Fox has limped through May, losing its chance to upset NBC for the 1998-99 campaign in the 18-49 demo, but will end the season a solid second in adults 18-49 and win the term in the lucrative adults 18-34 demographic.
Through the first 35 weeks of the season (with just three nights left to count and no significant shifts ex-pected), CBS is averaging a 9.0 household rating, 15 share, down 6% from last year’s Olympics-boosted results. NBC is close behind with an 8.9/15, down 13% from last year. The rest of the households order is ABC, 8.1/13 (down 2%); Fox, 7.0/11 (even); the WB, 3.2/5 (up 3%); UPN, 2.0/3 (down 29%); and Pax TV, 0.7/1.
NBC has won the season by a more comfortable margin in the adults 18-49 demographic, considered by ABC, NBC and Fox to be the yardstick of ratings success. NBC has averaged a 5.4 rating (down 18%) to top Fox’s 5.0 (even), ABC’s 4.7 (down 2%), CBS’ 3.9 (down 9%), the WB’s 1.8 (up 13%), UPN’s 1.1 (down 31%) and Pax TV’s 0.3.
Losses not Olympics-sized
It was another season of Big Four erosion, due largely to inroads by cable, but losses were modest given the boost in year-ago numbers from the Winter Olympics. For the 1998-99 term, the Big Four dropped 6% for the season in homes, from a 31.0/51 to a 33.0/55. Losses were a steeper 9% in the hotly contested adults 18-49 demo (a 17.4 rating vs. a 19.2)
Counting only regular programming, CBS maintained its year-ago adults 18-49 and 25-54 averages, making it the only Big Four net to do so. Moonves says that increased share of the Big Four pie is going to propel CBS to solid gains in the nets’ upfront selling season.
During her conference, Tarses spoke optimistically about the Alphabet’s building ratings momentum.
Asked if ABC would retake second from Fox next season in adults 18-49, she stopped short of predicting such a comeback, but said, “We’re going to do our damnedest. Are we going to close the gap on NBC? I think that’s absolutely going to happen. The difference between us last year was twice as much as it is this year.”
With just two nights left to count in the May sweeps, NBC’s 9.7 rating, 17 share in homes is down by 7% vs. last year, but looks to be enough to top CBS (9.1/16, up 1%), ABC (7.3/12, down 4%), Fox, (6.4/11, down 7%), WB (3.2/5, even) and UPN (1.9/3, down 24%).
Adults 18-49 standings are led by NBC (6.0/17, down 21%), Fox (4.6/14, down 8%) and ABC (4.3/13, even).
On a separate front, Tarses defended the network’s 11th-hour arm-squeezing to get series ownership from studios trying to place or keep their shows on the Alphabet web.
“It is just a reality now,” Tarses said. “We’re all looking for ways to make the business situation profitable.” Tarses said the network has leverage in May when studios are anxious to get shows on the air, so it’s a good time to make those demands.
There was a backlash, she said, because “emotions are running high” when so many people are paying attention to studio performance.
Tarses also acknowledged disappointment in the relative dearth of minority faces in the Alphabet’s new fall lineup and said the net has undertaken a recasting effort that should more effectively integrate some of those rookie skeins.
Each household rating point represents an estimated 994,000 homes, or 1% of the country’s TV households, according to Nielsen. Each adults 18-49 rating point reps 1.239 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.