Decline of 'Millionaire' gives other webs an opening

HOLLYWOOD — It seems only fitting that in a season when “Yes, Dear” is a hit, it’s NBC and Fox that have emerged as the networks with the greatest primetime success.

The Peacock and Murdoch nets were supposed to be stumbling badly at this point, most experts posited with a fairly high degree of certainty during the summer.

In fact, just about the only thing they agreed on more at the time was that the season’s first cancellation would be CBS laffer “Yes, Dear.”

Well, “Yes, Dear” has just said “no” the doomsayers for two months now and NBC and Fox are on the upswing, while preseason picks ABC and CBS are the nets left hoping for better things to come in January.

NBC, which entered the season with a crop of rookie series largely scorched by critics, cruised to a rather easy victory for November among adults 18-49 — relying primarily on its still-strong stable of returning series like “ER,” “Friends” and “Law & Order.”

The decline of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” made for a more level playing field this time around, and NBC pounced on the opportunity. It topped second-place ABC, the defending November sweep and season champ, by 12% in the key demo, according to final data provided by Nielsen for the Nov. 2-29 period.

“Considering everything we’ve had to overcome, we’re pleased with this schedule,” NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier says. “We still have time periods that fall into the work-in-progress category, but that’s why we do development for next year.”

For Fox, a net forced to start from scratch on several nights this fall and expected to struggle mightily, ratings success is only part of its sweeps story.

That the web remained competitive with the defending champs in 18-49 and nearly won the month in adults 18-34 is certainly an achievement — but even more impressive was how it did it.

Unlike years’ past, when the net artificially inflated its sweeps numbers by dousing its sked with the salacious likes of “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” and “When Animals Attack,” Fox is now using a stronger group of series to consistently win in adults 18-34, and often in 18-49, every night from Friday through Tuesday. Showing the best year-to-year gains in 18-49 were a pair of new shows, Monday’s “Boston Public” and Tuesday’s “Dark Angel.””This is a network that’s back on track and moving in the right direction,” says Fox Television Entertainment chair Sandy Grushow. “The overall strategy is trying to rebuild Fox for the long haul with series programming, rather than sweep-to-sweep with quick fixes. All things considered, we’re in the early stages of turning this network around.”

Net also claimed nine of the month’s top 20 programs among adults 18-34 and 10 of the top 20 among teens, another sign it hasn’t lost its edge among the younger set.

For ABC, a late surge in total viewers enabled the web to win the month’s consolation prize — the bragging rights as the most-watched net. ABC claimed six of the sweeps’ top-10 programs in total viewers, led by three editions of “Millionaire,” which ranked second, third and fifth.

Five editions of celebrity “Millionaire” boosted the show above seasonal averages, but not enough to match its scores from May. Compared with the first celeb hours, this month’s five nights were down 33% in viewers, and 39% in 18-49. And versus last November’s 18-night marathon averages, “Millionaire” was down this sweep by about 15% in viewers and 20% in 18-49.

ABC Entertainment Television co-chair Lloyd Braun continues to dismiss concerns that “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and its aging audience may have a negative long-term impact on the network.

” ‘Millionaire’ is still performing at a level that few shows have been able to hit,” Braun says. “If we took ‘Millionaire’ off the schedule, we could lower our median age dramatically. We could also make a fraction of the money that this network could make this year, and a ratings performance nowhere as strong as it is.

“Would we ever mortgage the future of the network to make money today? The answer is no,” he says.

CBS, like ABC, is hopeful its strategy of holding back some big guns until after the New Year will result in a stronger second half of the season. Net tied with Fox for third in its target demo of adults 25-54 (4.7/11).

The Eye’s slippage year-to-year can be traced largely to the performance of its movies. Net’s Sunday pic, which delivered two soft mini ratings, is down by 22% in 18-49 and 32% in viewers vs. a year ago.

“It’s something we’re looking at closely,” says CBS Entertainment topper Leslie Moonves, who adds that the net is optimistic about January, when it airs the Super Bowl and launches the second edition of “Survivor.”

“We feel we haven’t peaked yet,” Moonves says. “We feel very bullish about things.”

The weblets were also standout performers in the sweep, especially the WB, which delivered its highest adults 18-34 rating for any ratings period in its history (2.3/6). Frog net posted gains in key demos on all six nights it airs, with huge 18-34 gains on Monday (54%) and Wednesday (58%).

And UPN’s sweep was its best since November 1997 in total viewers (4.2 million), adults 18-49 (1.8/5) and adults 25-54 (1.8/4). Net’s up in adults 18-34 on four of is five nights, with Thursday’s “WWF Smackdown!” surprising many by continuing to grow in its second year on the weblet.

But then November delivered lots of happy surprises; just ask the high-flying Peacock.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more