Frog pushes UPN into ratings basement

See network by network ratings rundown

In a year in which sitcoms flopped and real people popped, telepics fizzled and crime dramas sizzled, the Big Six once again managed to hold their own against ever-exploding competitors like cable and the Internet. Overall, the nets attracted just 3% fewer viewers than last season — and that decline is largely attributable to ABC, which dropped 12% from its Regis Philbin-inflated numbers of a year ago.

With the 2000-01 television season now history, CBS is the most-watched network, NBC has regained its demo crown — and a resurgent Fox gets the prize for comeback of the year.

Powered by the hottest reality series (“Survivor: The Australian Outback”) and the most popular new drama (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”), CBS bumped off ABC in the race for eyeballs — though it came down to the last week of the season. In the end, final Nielsen data show the Eye with 12.53 million viewers (up 1%) vs. 12.51 million for ABC (down 12%). NBC and Fox again ranked third and fourth respectively.

Leaping Frog

Among netlets, WB was once again back on a growth track, regaining fifth place and pushing UPN back into the ratings basement. Frog finished first among one of its target auds, femme teens.

In the category advertisers value most when looking at the four major nets — adults 18-49 — the webs were as closely bunched as ever, with less than a ratings point separating them.

NBC returned to first place, even though its 4.8 rating/13 share in the demo was down 6% vs. last season. ABC — last year’s demo leader — fell a stunning 20% to third among adults 18-49, while CBS stayed in fourth but increased its demo rating by 8% to dramatically close the gap.

Fox moxie

The surprise of the season, however, may be Fox. Written off for dead 18 months ago, the net gained 7% to finish second in adults 18-49 for only the third time in its history — coming closer to first place than ever before. Fox also ranked first in adults 18-34 for the third consecutive season.

“We had our most competitive season ever,” Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow said. “We truly believe that in spite of all the noise that the other networks are making, the real story is the emergence of Fox as a real player and contender for primetime leadership.”

Credit for Fox’s performance goes to continued strong Saturday and Sunday skeds, a Monday lineup boosted by the addition of drama “Boston Public” and Tuesday sitcom successes “That ’70s Show” and “Titus.” Reality guru Mike Darnell contributed the midseason monster “Temptation Island,” which helped pump up Fox’s Wednesday numbers by 15%.

Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman added that the net’s goal “is to be the No. 1 network next year in adults 18-49.”

Eyeing success

Over at CBS, topper Leslie Moonves said the Eye “is clearly in the best competitive position we’ve been in for many years. Everyone is beaming here.”

While “Survivor” remained the Eye’s “golden goose,” as Moonves put it, CBS has several other reasons to smile. Crime drama “CSI,” paired with “Survivor,” helped CBS turn around Thursday night. While NBC still leads, the Eye has cut into the Peacock’s dominance. New drama “The District” seamlessly replaced “Walker, Texas Ranger” Saturdays at 10, while frosh laffer “Yes, Dear” helped solidify the CBS Monday night comedy block.

For NBC, the season was one of transition. Jeff Zucker replaced Garth Ancier as entertainment topper; Bob Wright bumped himself upstairs and named Andy Lack his replacement; and the net’s once iron-clad grip on Thursdays loosened. Despite the changes, NBC averted the disaster many had predicted — and managed to end up first in the category that counts.

Peacock power

“A lot of people at the beginning of the season and even midway through the season didn’t think we’d finish in first place,” Zucker said. “It’s a testament to the power of these shows.”

“ER” remains NBC’s Thursday powerhouse, and “Friends” is still strong. The net’s hidden weapon: “Law & Order,” which in its 11th season somehow scored its best ratings ever.

Meanwhile, Frog execs were croaking again after a disappointing 1999-2000 season. “We’ve been the growth story in network TV,” WB Entertainment prexy Jordan Levin said. “I think the story for us is we’re back. We’re up every single night we’re on. It’s not a one-night story.”

Although the weblet still has a way to go before it returns to the levels it enjoyed in 1998-99, WB execs had reason for optimism that the Frog was back on track. The WB led all networks in growth in many of the major measurements– including adults 18-49 and adults 18-34.

As for UPN, the netlet has settled back down after taking a “WWF Smackdown”-fueled leap a year before. Without a breakout success this season, and with wrestling mania dying down, UPN held relatively steady. Acquisitions such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Enterprise” might goose those numbers next year.

ABC execs conceded they don’t have much to brag about this season, which saw the Alphabet struggle to get off the ratings heroin known as “Who Wants to Be a Milllionaire.”

As with any drug, the Regis tonic was unable to sustain its initial buzz, and the resulting tumble helped make ABC the first web ever to fall from first to third in adults 18-49 in a single season. Indeed, ABC declined on every night of the week.

Still, ABC’s finish in the demo this season simply puts the web back where it was in the demo before Regis: third. And there were a few bright spots for the net, particularly in the longform arena. ABC once again had the most-watched telepic (“Oprah Winfrey Presents: Amy & Isabelle”) and mini (producer Craig Zadan and Neil Meron’s “Life with Judy Garland.”)

“Last year we were riding the incredible, phenomenal ‘Millionaire’ and its halo effect,” Braun said. “This year, ‘Millionaire’ is not the ratings phenomenon it was, and our performance reflects that.”

But co-topper Lloyd Braun is encouraged by the Alphabet’s midseason success with laffers like “My Wife and Kids,” and believes the overall network race for next season is up for grabs.

“This is probably the most competitive season that we’ve all seen,” Braun said. “It’s never been more true that we’re all one big hit away from being No. 1.”

Overall, the networks are still contending with some of their lowest numbers in history. Though the rate of decline has slowed, ABC and NBC posted their weakest adults 18-49 ratings yet. In total viewers, NBC averaged its worst numbers ever, while CBS managed its second-worst and ABC, its third-worst.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

Network by network

ABC

Strongest night: Tuesday

Most improved night: No nights up in adults 18-49

Most devalued night: Thursday, down 27% in adults 18-49

Top programs: “Millionaire-Wednesday” (Total Viewers); “Monday Night Football” (Adults 18-49, A25-54, A18-34); “Wonderful World of Disney” (Teens, Kids)

Winning nights: Tuesday (Total Viewers, Adults 18-49, A25-54); Saturday (Teens); Sunday (A25-54)

Also: Net aired the season’s top two miniseries and the top three telepics.

CBS

Strongest night: Monday

Most improved night: Thursday, up 79% in adults 25-54

Most devalued night: Wednesday, down 11% in adults 25-54

Top programs: “Survivor: The Australian Outback (every category)

Winning nights: Monday (Total Viewers, Adults 25-54); Saturday (Viewers); Sunday (Viewers)

Also: Its “60 Minutes” and “CBS Sunday Movie,” although down year-to-year, remained the most-watched newsmag and movie package in primetime.

NBC

Strongest night: Thursday

Most improved night: Wednesday, up 14% in adults 18-49

Most devalued night: Saturday, down 27% in adults 18-49

Top programs: “ER” (Total Viewers, Adults 18-49, A25-54); “Friends” (A18-34, Teens, Kids)

Winning nights: Wednesday (Total Viewers, Adults 18-49, A25-54); Thursday (Viewers, A18-49, A25-54, A18-34); Friday (Viewers, A18-49, A25-54)

Also: Its top two Thursday comedies (“Friends” and “Will & Grace”) and drama “ER” rank as the season’s top three scripted series in adults 18-49 for a second straight season.

FOX

Strongest night: Sunday

Most improved night: Tuesday, up 34% in adults 18-49

Most devalued night: Thursday, down 10% in adults18-49

Top programs: “The Simpsons” (Total Viewers, Adults 18-49, A18-34); “The X-Files” (A25-54); “Malcolm in the Middle” (Teens, Kids)

Winning nights: Monday (Adults 18-49, A18-34); Tuesday (A18-34); Wednesday (A18-34, Teens); Friday (A18-34, Teens, tie with the WB); Saturday (A18-49, A25-54, A18-34); Sunday (A18-49, A18-34, Teens)

Also: It claimed 10 of the season’s top 12 shows among teens and eight of the top 15 among men 18-34.

UPN

Strongest night: Thursday

Most improved night: Tuesday, up 22% in adults 18-34

Most devalued night: Wednesday, down 13% in adults18-34

Top programs: “WWF Smackdown” (Total Viewers, A18-49, A18-34, Teens, Kids); “Star Trek: Voyager” (A25-54)

Winning nights: Thursday (Teens)

Also: From the “go figure” department, the net’s “WWF Smackdown” lost 17% of its teen audience vs. a year ago but gained by 30% among viewers 55-plus.

WB

Strongest night: Monday/Tuesday

Most improved night: Monday, up 33% in adults 18-34

Most devalued night: None of the nights declined.

Top programs: “7th Heaven” (Total Viewers, Adults 18-49, A25-54, Teens, Kids); “Dawson’s Creek” (A18-34)

Winning nights: Monday (Teens); Friday (Teens, tie with Fox)

Also: It’s the only net to improve year-to-year in its key demo on every night it programs; however, it declined sharply in teens on several nights.

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