Sweeps race coming down to the wire

HOLLYWOOD– NBC is counting on its well-heeled “Friends” to devalue ABC’s “Millionaire” in a pivotal showdown tonight on the final day of May sweeps.

The sweeps race for the key advertiser demo of adults 18-49 is headed for a photo finish, with NBC holding a precarious advantage over ABC and two days remaining to be counted.

The Peacock, whose lead had been reduced to a bit less than two-tenths of a ratings point through Monday, is looking to fortify its chances of winning for the sixth straight May by airing a rebroadcast of last week’s “Friends” season finale opposite ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The net had skedded “Dateline” for the slot.

NBC feels the Wednesday 8 o’clock hour is key because the nets could be in a virtual tie after Tuesday’s results and ABC has a potential big ratings score Wednesday with Michael J. Fox’s farewell on “Spin City” at 9.

The Peacock will follow “Friends” with two firstrun episodes of “Law and Order” from 9 to 11.

An ABC victory would give the net a clean sweep of the season’s sweeps periods in adults 18-49, having posted narrow victories over NBC in November and February. The Alphabet won more comfortably in homes and total viewers in the earlier sweeps, and has an insurmountable advantage over NBC this month.

NBC won the week of May 15-21 in adults 18-49 — its third in the last four weeks — to move into the sweeps lead. The net placed the top three shows in the demo during the frame, led by blockbuster finales for “ER” (17.5/44), “Frasier” (17.0/41) and “Friends” (16.0/44). Fox’s “Beverly Hills 90210″ finale (8.5/22) and “The X-Files” (8.5/20) rounded out the top five.

Combined, the six nets were up 5% in adults 18-49 vs. the same week last year (22.5 vs. 21.4). NBC joined ABC and UPN in posting demo increases, while CBS was even and Fox down just 4%.

In total viewers, ABC won for the 21st consecutive week, although NBC pulled to within 530,000 viewers — the closest any net has been during the streak.

The most-watched programs last week were “ER” (34.59 million), “Frasier” (33.70), “Friends” (30.73), Sunday’s “Millionaire” (27.73) and Tuesday’s “Millionaire” (23.57).

Adults 18-49 averages for May sweeps (through Monday): NBC, 5.5 rating/16 share (down 8% in rating vs. a year ago); ABC, 5.3/15 (up 23%); Fox, 4.1/12 (down 9%); CBS, 3.5/10 (down 5%); UPN, 1.7/5 (up 70%); the WB, 1.4/4 (down 18%).

In total viewers, the sweeps averages are ABC, 14.94 million (up 44%); NBC, 12.61 (down 9%); CBS, 11.92 (down 8%); Fox, 8.41 (down 11%); UPN, 4.13 (up 59%); the WB, 3.37 (down 24%).

Adults 18-49 averages for May 15-21: NBC, 6.1/17 (up 3%); ABC, 5.0/14 (up 16%); Fox, 4.6/13 (down 4%); CBS, 3.7/10 (even); UPN, 1.6/4 (up 78%); the WB, 1.5/4 (down 17%).

Adults 18-49 averages for the top basic cable services: TNT, 1.0/3 (down 29%); HBO, 0.9/3 (down 10%); USA, 0.8/2 (down 11%), tied with TBS, 0.8/2 (even); Lifetime, 0.6/2 (up 50%), tied with ESPN, 0.6/2 (up 50%).

Monday

CBS won May 22 in viewers (14.02 million), led by the most-watched “Everybody Loves Raymond” (18.52 million) since January. “Raymond” also topped Fox’s “Ally McBeal” head-to-head in adults 18-49 (6.5 vs. 5.5) for the second time in three weeks.

ABC finished second in viewers and first in adults 18-49 with the three-hour preem of “Con Air” (13.24 million, 5.5/14 in A18-49), which won its final half-hour by 7 shares in young adults.

A pair of male-oriented theatricals (“Con Air” and NBC’s repeat of “Men in Black”) sent Fox comedies “That ’70s Show” (4.3/12) and “Titus” (4.0/12) to their lowest firstrun adults 18-49 ratings on a Monday this season, although “’70s” won its half-hour in the demo.

Sunday

Fox topped ABC on the night in young adults with its best Sunday score (6.3/17) since Feb. 27.

“The X-Files” was the night’s top-ranked show in adults 18-49 (8.5/20), edging “Millionaire” (8.3/20). “Files” finished 20% better than its season average in 18-49 (8.5 vs. 7.1), but 7% below last year’s finale (9.1).

NBC pic “Growing Up Brady” edged up in nationals to a 6.3/16 in adults 18-49, making it the net’s No. 2 telepic in the demo this season, behind only November’s “Y2K” (7.3/16).

Saturday

In a preview of next season, when both ABC and NBC will air theatricals on the night, viewers chose the firstrun “The Rainmaker” on NBC (10.01 million) over ABC’s quickie repeat of “Air Force One” (6.78 million).

CBS topped them both in viewers (11.28 million) behind a two-hour season finale for “Walker, Texas Ranger” (13.16 million), while Fox won in adults 18-49.

Friday

NBC won the night in viewers and adults 18-49, led by the best “Providence” (13.51 million, 4.5/17) since March 31.

The “27th Annual Daytime Emmys” on ABC was off last year’s pace by 12% in homes (9.1/16 vs. 10.3/19) and by 9% in adults 18-49 (4.1/13 vs. 4.5/15). Kudocast won its two-hour block in all key women demos, but for the first time in three years failed to win in adults 18-49 (NBC won, 4.2 to 4.1).

Despite placing third in adults 18-49, CBS’ “Nash Bridges” logged its best rating (3.9/12) since Feb. 18 and won its hour in key male demos.

The WB’s comedy block drew an average of 3.06 million viewers, its best since Feb. 18.

Thursday

The season finales of NBC’s three big guns — “Friends,” “Frasier” and “ER” — produced the largest non-Super Bowl nightly aud (33 million viewers) and adults 18-49 rating (16.8/43) since the series finale of “Seinfeld” two years ago.

Among scripted series, “Frasier’s” finale aud (33.7 million) ranks third this season behind only two episodes of “ER.” It was “Frasier’s” largest aud ever, surpassing the 33.3 million who watched a 1994 episode featuring guest star Bebe Neuwirth.

The six nets combined for an 84 share in homes from 9:30 to 10, up from 77 a week earlier (Daily Variety, May 22).

Wednesday

The four nets averaged a Wednesday season high of 60.4 million viewers, led by ABC (18.1) and its “Millionaire” (22.41 million).

Highlights included “Beverly Hills 90210″‘s best numbers (14.37 million, 8.5/22 in A18-49) in nearly 4½ years, while an interview with Michael J. Fox helped ABC’s “20/20″ record the top adults 18-49 rating (7.1/18) for any newsmag this season. “20/20″ also topped an original “Law and Order” in young adults (7.1 vs. 6.7) for the first time this season.

CBS mini “Jesus” wrapped by winning each half-hour in viewers and its final half-hour in young adults.

Tuesday

ABC won as usual on the night, but NBC finished just 3 shares out of the adults 18-49 lead. Season finale of “Just Shoot Me” delivered NBC’s largest aud in the 9:30 slot (14.01 million) this season and its best adults 18-49 score (7.6/19) since Feb. 8.

The 10 p.m. battle was about as close as it could get among women 18-49: CBS’ “Judging Amy” (6.6) led the way, shadowed closely by ABC’s “NYPD Blue” (6.5) and NBC’s “Dateline” (6.5). It’s the first time “Amy” has led the pack this season.

“Amy” also had to work the hardest to get there, improving on its “60 Minutes II” lead-in by 89% (6.6 vs. 3.5).

Monday

The preem of “Air Force One” lifted ABC in total viewers past CBS on May 15, while Fox swept each of the night’s half-hours in young adults (Daily Variety, May 17).

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