NBC remains the network to beat when it comes to delivering the young adults whom advertisers most want to reach, but the net’s grip has loosened.
In the 2002-03 season that ended Wednesday, the Peacock held off a fierce comeback attempt by Fox to win the adults 18-49 title while keeping CBS at bay among adults 25-54.
Veteran series including “Friends,” “ER” and “Law & Order” kept the net humming along nicely, but other tentpoles like “Frasier” and “The West Wing” caved in, putting pressure on the net’s upcoming fall crop to produce.
CBS, meanwhile, earned bragging rights as the most-watched network overall for the second time in three seasons, with its Thursday drama “CSI” emerging as the top drama in total viewers, averaging 26.2 million weekly, according to Nielsen.
It was certainly a big year for reality TV, as “American Idol” and “Joe Millionaire” made Fox the hottest web in the second half of the season. Net effectively used “Idol” especially to prop up the ratings for some of its younger, critically acclaimed scripted skeins, such as “24” and “Bernie Mac.”
Fox, which had a weak start, finished with a flurry and was the network of choice for the season among adults 18-34 (4.4/13) — topping second-place NBC by 16%.
ABC, with an assist from the Super Bowl and “The Bachelor” franchise, showed year-to-year gains and has stabilized somewhat but was struggling mightily in the drama department.
The younger networks remain a study in contrast, with the WB improving in key demos (including an industry-best 17% in adults 18-34) and UPN sliding further (down 16%).
Overall, combined viewership of the six broadcast nets was off by 2% vs. a year ago, when NBC aired the Winter Olympics for 17 nights — not bad given the steeper declines of recent seasons. Basic cable was up 4%.
Here’s a closer look at the nets:
Tuesday night, once a stronghold for NBC, has all but collapsed, while Wednesday also was looking shaky as anchor “The West Wing” suffered serious audience erosion. “Crossing Jordan,” which was shaping up to be a nice hit Mondays at 10, got smacked by “CSI: Miami” and won’t return for 2003-04 until midseason.
Still, as Peacock execs point out, the network race is essentially where it was two years ago. Also on the plus side, NBC’s longform strategy has been a success, while several musical specs — led by a farewell concert from Cher — were Nielsen winners.
The “Law & Order” franchise continues to be a juggernaut (including big growth for Sunday sophomore “Criminal Intent”), and “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and “ER” remain dominant on Thursdays with younger auds. Early buzz on several new fall skeins is also solid.
“Looking at the network as a whole, we will once again finish the season No. 1 in every daypart,” NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker said. “That’s the second year in a row that has happened; no other network has done it even once. It’s a testament to our tremendous strength across the board.”
From worst to first — Fox had a wild season, stumbling out of the gate but recovering enough to win its first sweeps among adults 18-49.
“The end-of-season ratings are clear, impressive and require no spin whatsoever,” Fox TV Entertainment Group chair Sandy Grushow said.
The net is in a strong position for next season, he added.
“We believe time is on our side,” he said. “We’re not predicting victory next season, but maybe the year after that we’re in fine shape to be competitive for that No. 1 slot.”
The network couldn’t have done it without two potent weapons: “Joe Millionaire” and “American Idol.” Mike Darnell’s alternative series division wound up overseeing three of the year’s top five programs among adults 18-49.
Thanks to its dumb-construction-worker-posing-as-a-millionaire twist, “Joe Millionaire” was the year’s top-rated series in adults 18-49. It’s the first time in the modern era that a nonscripted series nabbed the top spot.
“Idol,” meanwhile, came on strong in midseason as well, dominating not one but two time periods.
While the other networks slice and dice the 18-49 numbers, CBS is just fine keeping its eye on total viewers, where the net won all three sweeps this season for the first time in 15 years.
“We’ve proved that we’re the best developers and marketers and broadcasters,” CBS chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves crowed.
The Eye was buoyed by its solid Monday and Thursday nights, where shows such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “CSI: Miami,” “Survivor” and “CSI” continue to flourish.
The news was particularly good on Thursday, as the Eye won the night in total viewers, beating NBC by 2 million — the first time the Peacock hasn’t taken the Thursday viewers crown in 18 years.
“We’re in very good shape. I like the results of the year and May,” Moonves said.
Still, many of the net’s vets are trending downward, and Wednesday and Friday especially need some help.
Alphabet topper Lloyd Braun counts the season as a success because the net did two things: “We’ve stopped the bleeding … and we’ve planted lots of little seeds.”
Indeed, things were a bit brighter for ABC this season vs. last, particularly on Tuesday nights. Net’s comedies started off quite strong in the fall, only to taper off opposite an “Idol”-powered Fox.
Fox’s juggernaut wiped up much of ABC’s momentum, as did the net’s curious decision to throw a bunch of reality shows and lackluster midseason comedies on the air in a brief three-month window. It also didn’t help that none of the net’s dramas worked.
‘Jim’ besting ‘Frasier’
Still, Tuesday is still doing OK, particularly at 9, where little-laffer-that-could “According to Jim” now beats “Frasier” on a regular basis. “The Bachelor” cooled a bit in the spring, but not before knocking down “The West Wing.”
Net was especially happy about its 9% year-to-year growth in adults 18-34, as it put some distance between itself and CBS.
“I believe we are on the right track as to how to rebuild ABC,” Braun said. “Our main objective was to reverse the downward trend in our ratings, and we’ve done that. All in all, we feel we have in fact stopped the bleeding.”
The next necessary step, he said, will be to cultivate a breakout series.
“We have no megahit yet,” he said. “But a lot of shows are gaining strength.”
The focused Frog continues to show improvement, this season growing the most of any network among adults 18-34 and defeating CBS among femmes 12-34.
“We’re proud of the fact that we did it on the back of original scripted programming,” WB Entertainment prexy Jordan Levin said of the net’s ratings gains. “This was a season that did not rely on stunts (and) was strong across the board. It wasn’t one tentpole show, it was multiple shows.”
The young-Superman redux “Smallville” has especially taken flight, teaming with “Gilmore Girls” for a solid Tuesday night sked. WB also finally found a companion for “7th Heaven” that works, the frosh success “Everwood.”
“Charmed” continued to enchant viewers on Sunday, setting network ratings records in all three time periods it has aired in.
Thursday night still needs work, as only the moderately successful “Jamie Kennedy Experiment” did anything.
It wasn’t the best of seasons, but say this much for the net: It’s still here.
Despite never-ending predictions of its demise, the Viacom-owned net made it through another season, albeit with an unsettling double-digit percentage drop in viewership across the board. “Enterprise” didn’t take off the way execs hoped, and none of the net’s new dramas caught on.
But while many nets struggled with laughs, UPN found success with its urban block of Monday comedies (which is why there’ll be a Tuesday block this fall).
And while net toppers Leslie Moonves and Dawn Ostroff didn’t get much of a chance to put a stamp on the 2002-03 programming (having arrived in 2002 with most development already in the works), next season will give the execs a chance to give UPN what it’s always lacked: a clear identity.
(Michael Schneider and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)