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Nets race for ratings to the wire

Competitive landscape for coveted 18-49 aud

HOLLYWOOD — The end of the season is shaping up as quite a ratings horse race, with some neck-and-neck finishes not likely to be decided until the final weeks of the May sweep.

Certainly up for grabs are the two biggest prizes — the advertiser-important adults 18-49 crown and the bragging-rights title of most-watched network — with NBC and ABC, respectively, looking to hold onto leads they’ve enjoyed all season.

But there’s also the battle for netlet glory, as UPN and the WB enter the sweep in a virtual tie in both adults 18-49 and total viewers. The Frog net has already clinched the titles that matter most to both webs, though: adults 18-34 and teens.

It’s unusual for so many of the key races to be up for grabs at this point, but it underscores the competitive landscape of primetime at a time when off-the-charts hits like CBS’ “Survivor” or Fox’s “Temptation Island” and “Boot Camp” can shake up the order of things in a hurry. Both of these nets would not be nearly as competitive without them.

The most intriguing battle is for the coveted adults 18-49 title, with Variety projecting all four major nets finishing within half a ratings point, by far the most competitive season on record. As recently as three years ago, 2.4 ratings points separated winner NBC and fourth-place CBS.

NBC, which figured to be able to hold on for victory this season anyway, received some insurance last week with strong ratings for new quizzer “The Weakest Link,” which will air on Mondays during the sweep. Fox and ABC also have an outside chance of catching NBC, but it’s a long shot.

Despite the presumed seasonlong victory, though, the Peacock’s winning 18-49 rating (a projected 4.8) will be its lowest ever and the weakest ever for a victorious net.

Fourth-place CBS is the only web without a shot at winning the season in adults 18-49, but it will finish with a 4-plus demo rating for the first time in three years and land closer to the leader (about half a ratings point) than it has in any year since the 1991-92 season. The Eye can also finish as high as second in its target adults 25-54 demo for the first time in seven years.

ABC, last year’s winner in both total viewers and adults 18-49, will fall to record lows in all key adults categories but will post its second largest overall audience in four years — thanks to “Millionaire” and its many 50-plus viewers.

The Alphabet and Eye webs will be duking it out for overall audience, with the former’s two-hour finale of “Survivor: The Australian Outback” on May 3 expected to make it a close finish. In fact, it could come down to how well high-profile minis “Blonde” (CBS) and “Anne Frank” (ABC) fare over the final two weeks.

NBC, which will win the season in all women demos as well as the key adults 18-49 breakdown, is looking at record lows across the board. Most noticeable trend of recent years comes in men 18-34, where the Peacock will place third for a second straight year after capturing that demo in 1997-98 (its final year of the NFL and “Seinfeld”).

Not that it matters much in the big scheme of things, but the demo category where the major nets are most closely bunched is men 25-54. Variety projects that all four webs will finish within a couple ticks of each other, with Fox or NBC likely finishing on top.

It’s quite a different story among younger men, where Fox virtually locked up things months ago. Net will win in male teens by 7 or 8 shares and in men 18-34 by about 4 shares.

As for the weblets, the WB will join CBS and Fox as the only nets to finish up vs. a year ago in both total viewers and its target demo.

UPN has been on the WB’s tail all season in total viewers but will find it tough to leap over the Frog in the closing weeks, especially since the Testosterone net’s potential game-changer, reality skein “Chains of Love,” got off to a slow start last week.

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