Big Four turn back b’cast erosion

'Millionaire' boosts network

Flat is good at the Big 4 networks, which managed to stem the erosion a bit this February sweeps.

With ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” still kicking serious Nielsen butt, the major webs’ combined household shares didn’t suffer a year-to-year decline this month, the first time since 1993.

“It has also been a victory for everybody in network TV,” said CBS Television president/CEO Leslie Moonves. “The thought that network television is over has been a little premature.”

Of course, those flat figures were mostly due to ABC’s boffo Feb. perf in homes, which offset year-to-year declines posted at the other three major networks. With two days remaining in February sweeps, ABC has averaged a 10.2 rating and 17 share in homes — up 24% compared with last year. Comparatively, CBS is down 7%; Fox, 8%; and NBC, 9%.

Combined, the four nets averaged a 35.1 rating and 57 share this February through Monday — virtually unchanged from last year’s 35.3/57.

The Alphabet web made similar substantial gains among adults 18 to 49 and total viewers, while the other three mature webs posted losses. (Among the baby networks, UPN managed strong improvements.)

ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairs Lloyd Braun and co-chair Stu Bloomberg claimed victory in all three major measurements, while CBS and NBC continued to duke it out for the tight second place race in homes and total viewers. NBC took second place in adults 18 to 49.

“(‘Millionaire’) has continued to perform marvelously,” said Braun, dismissing concerns that the show has begun to attract an older skew. “We couldn’t be happier with where we are with it right now.”

The other major webs did have reason to be chipper in the wake of “Millionaire’s” path. Moonves noted that three series airing opposite the mighty “Millionaire” (“JAG,” “Frasier” and “CBS Sunday Movie”) still manage to remain top-20 programs.

Also, the network landscape was helped by a strong showing by the Grammy Awards on CBS and decent performances by series such as NBC’s “ER” and Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle.”

According to NBC West Coast prexy Scott Sassa, the average number of people watching TV this month grew 2% to 102 million, the highest average for a non-Olympics February sweeps since 1993.

“People are coming back to network TV,” Sassa said.

Meanwhile, in light of Fox’s troubles with “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” Moonves said CBS has decided to further beef up screening procedures and background checks for applicants to summer reality skeins “Survivor” and “Big Brother.”

“I want grade-school diplomas,” the Eye topper quipped. “There are certain safeguards (the producers) took, and we’re going even further than that.”

Moonves also confirmed that an update of “The $64,000 Question” is on the development fast-track and could pilot as soon as this spring.

Meanwhile, Moonves repeated his belief that the 2000-01 season should begin on Oct. 2, after NBC’s broadcast of the Summer Olympics. ABC, CBS, Fox, UPN and the WB have all agreed to that date, with only NBC resisting the idea.

Nielsen has yet to make a decision on the matter.

Despite reports that Imagine is already shopping around for a new home for its critically lauded but low-rated “Sports Night,” ABC’s Bloomberg said the Alphabet still hoped to bring the show back next fall.

“It has a very loyal and very vocal audience,” Bloomberg said. “We have to weigh that (against its ratings and) the rest of our development.”

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