‘Who’ knew it’s ABC

Gamer, upcoming Super Bowl leading net to viewer lead

Who wants to be TV’s new No. 1 network?

The final answer on that won’t be in until May, but for now the right response is: ABC.

The Nielsen lifelines that are called Regis Philbin and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” have handed the one-time ratings pauper a season-to-date lead in total viewers, a tie for the season’s adults 18-49 lead and a solid chance to catch its rivals in households.

Alphabet is now averaging 13.03 million viewers for the season, just a fraction more than CBS’ 12.99 million and NBC’s 12.98 million. This weekend’s Super Bowl, however, will propel ABC far ahead of its pursuers.

In adults 18-49, both ABC and NBC are now averaging a 5.2 rating, 14 share for the season. NBC still has the edge in unrounded figures, but that, too, will last only until ABC cashes in its Super Bowl windfall.

If ABC can hold on to the lead — a not-too-risky bet considering the net still has Sunday’s pigskin classic, the Oscars in March and many, many more nights of “Millionaire” — it will have accomplished one of the more stunning comebacks in recent Nielsen history. Just a year ago, the web was mired deep in third place, written off for dead in many quarters.

In households, ABC’s still third, trailing by a 0.4-rating-point margin (NBC, 9.0; CBS, 8.9; ABC, 8.6), but few industryites still think of homes as a key stat. Even so, Sunday’s gridcast should put ABC at or near the top of those standings as well.

ABC’s chances of maintaining its leads through season’s end depend mostly on how long “Millionaire” can keep piling up its huge Nielsens.

Last week “Millionaire” scored the week’s three highest ratings in both adults 18-49 and total viewers with best-yet numbers on each of its three nights.

Meanwhile, each of the other nets’ copycat gameshows appeared to be finding their niches last week. NBC’s “Twenty-One” impressively topped season slot averages in its first Wednesday try, CBS’ “Winning Lines” answered with its two strongest performances to date on Friday and Saturday, and Fox’s “Greed” nearly took the 18-49 prize for its Friday hour.

But it was “Millionaire” teaming with Monday’s “American Music Awards” that kept ABC in control of the week despite major boosts at NBC from Sunday’s “Golden Globes” and at Fox from Sunday’s NFC Championship overrun.

Jan. 16-23 adults 18-49 averages were: ABC, a 6.2 rating, 16 share (up in rating by 63% vs. year-ago results); Fox, 5.4/14 (up 4%); NBC, 5.3/13 (down 15%); CBS, 3.7/10 (even); UPN, 1.7/4 (up 31%); WB, 1.4/3 (down 30%); Pax TV, 0.3/1 (even).

National primetime 18-49 averages for the top cable services were: USA, 1.3/3 (up 18%); HBO, 1.0/3 (down 17%); TNT, 0.8/2 (down 27%); TBS, 0.8/2 (down 20%); Lifetime, 0.6/1 (even); Discovery, 0.6/1 (up 20%).

In a rare twist, the broadcast nets were up in households for the week vs. last year (when there was no NFL football) while basic cable and pay cable were down.

Monday

Jan. 24 featured the first showdown between Monday’s three rookie dramas, with ABC’s “Once and Again” (10.77 million viewers, 5.1 rating, 13 share in adults 18-49) grabbing the hour in the 18-49 demo and CBS’ “Family Law” (12.14 million, 3.6/10 in adults 18-49) leading in viewers. NBC’s “Third Watch” (11.34 million, 4.4/12 in adults 18-49) was a respectable second by both measures.

Though half its lineup was in rerun, CBS led the night in viewers and adults 18-49. It was CBS’ first Monday 18-49 win with regular fare since March 17, 1997. “King of Queens” earned series records in viewers (15.72 million) and 18-49 (5.9/16), and “Ladies Man” followed with a series-best 13.86 million viewers despite a rerun seg.

Nielsen households were brutal to the WB premiere of “Brutally Normal” (2.19 million, 0.8/2 in adults 18-49), which lost 58% of its 18-49 lead-in during its first half-hour (1.0 vs. 2.4) and then faded by another 40% in its second half-hour (0.6 vs. 1.0). In homes, it was the WB’s worst regular-fare firstrun rating that hour since Feb. 27, 1997.

Sunday

Fox’s 4:21-7:30 p.m. NFC Championship Game ran up super stats, including an average 42.65 million viewers and an 18.5/51 in adults 18-49. An hour of game overrun and post-game coverage was enough to hand off the nightlong win to Fox, despite “Golden Globes” and “Millionaire” competition.

Counted as a separate program, the NFC title game’s primetime overrun is the highest-rated prime segment since last March’s Monica Lewinsky interview.

The rest of Fox’s lineup, though, fumbled the chance to convert those football numbers into a breakthrough Sunday. At 9 p.m., “The X-Files” slipped to third for its hour in adults 18-49, a surprising 6 shares behind “Millionaire.”

NBC was awarded its highest Sunday results since premiere week by the “Golden Globes,” though “Millionaire” and some “Sopranos” competition helped send the kudocast to its lowest Nielsens in three years (Daily Variety, Jan. 25).

HBO’s hit “The Sopranos” was impacted by competition from the “Globes” (where “Sopranos” was winning multiple awards) and faded by 28% vs. its previous-week season-premiere adults 18-49 result, 2.8/6 vs. 4.9/10 nationally. It was still cable’s highest non-wrestling 18-49 rating of the week, though HBO reaches just 31% of U.S. TV homes.

The “Golden Globes” and other competition rolled over “Felicity,” knocking the struggling sophomore to, by far, its flattest firstrun figures ever. The Jan. 23 “Felicity” managed barely one-third the 18-49 rating average of its first three Sunday tries this season (0.8 vs. 2.1).

Saturday

ABC escaped with a surprising nightlong win from “The Birdcage,” which sung ABC’s sweetest Saturday tune in households with regular fare since Feb. 21, 1998 (“Clear and Present Danger”).

NBA regular-season basketball still lacks the bounce needed for primetime, last week keeping NBC in the Saturday cellar, 3 shares out of third in adults 18-49.

CBS got its best Saturday 8-9 p.m. viewer total of the season from “Winning Lines.”

Friday

NBC continued to tighten its grip on Friday as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” sustained NBC’s best regular-fare Nielsens that hour since Nov. 14, 1997 (“Homicide”). At 8 p.m., “Providence” hit season highs and equaled its hot year-earlier 18-49 score.

CBS gamer “Winning Lines” showed Friday promise, topping the 18-49 average of slot regular “Kids Say the Darndest Things” by 29% (3.1 vs. 2.4). “Lines” couldn’t help “Cosby,” which retained just 68% of its 18-49 lead-in from the gameshow special.

From 9-10 p.m., Fox’s “Greed” finished just a tenth of a point behind “Dateline NBC” for the hour’s 18-49 lead.

Thursday

In total viewers, the second-biggest “Millionaire” audience to date helped ABC top NBC’s Thursday lineup (albeit in rerun) for the first time with regular fare since May 12, 1994 (Daily Variety, Jan. 24).

But “Millionaire” isn’t doing it alone. “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” for example, improvised ABC’s best regular-sked homes ratings in that hour since the 1995-96 campaign.

Wednesday

A relatively promising Wednesday start for “City of Angels” helped CBS to its top regular-sked Wednesday homes rating since Oct. 15, 1997 (Daily Variety, Jan. 21). The first Wednesday “Twenty-One,” meanwhile, added up to NBC’s highest non-sports 18-49 rating in that slot since last March 3.

Tuesday

“Millionaire” helped “Dharma & Greg” to best-ever rerun results while sending NBC’s fading sitcoms (in rerun) to fourth for the hour in adults 18-49. At 10 p.m., “Dateline NBC” hit its lowest Tuesday homes rating since Christmas Eve 1996.

UPN got an encouraging debut from “I Dare You: The Ultimate Challenge,” the netlet’s best regular-series Nielsens in the hour this season.

Lowest-ever firstrun homes ratings were logged by UPN’s re-skedded “Shasta,” the WB’s “Angel” and Fox’s “Party of Five.”

USA’s “Mary Kay Letourneau Story” earned the week’s top basic-cable movie rating, a 2.5 nationally in adults 18-49.

Monday

ABC swept Jan. 17 honors with “The American Music Awards” (Daily Variety, Jan. 19).

Each adults 18-49 rating point reps 1.24 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total. The share is also a percentage, but measured against only the viewers watching TV during the slot involved.

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