Strong movies, specials, 'CSI' help propel network

This article was updated at 9:48 p.m.

No Ronnie? No Jacko? No problem.

Despite some high-profile last-minute sked changes, it was truly a November to remember for CBS, which hit on all cylinders this month in achieving its strongest fall sweep perf in years.

The most productive rookie class, combined with strong movies, specials and television’s No. 1 show in “CSI” have put the Eye net over the top in adults 25-54 and total viewers for the November ratings period and within shouting distance of NBC’s 18-49 lead.

Although three nights of ratings were still to be counted in the month’s numbers, the key races have already been decided. All that’s left to be determined are how a couple of nets round up or down in key demos.

CBS chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves, who joined other network toppers Monday in discussing their November performances with reporters on separate conference calls, crowed that it was the Eye’s best sweep in many years. “We’re the only network having a wonderful sweep. We have so many good stories to report, I don’t know where to begin.”

Well, for starters: CBS is up year-to-year while each of the other broadcasters is down. “For the rest of the networks, the past four weeks have not been as pleasant,” said Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman, offering congrats to the Eye web.

ABC, NBC and Fox execs directed part of the blame for their declines this fall at Nielsen, citing ongoing concerns that the rating service’s methodology has severely discounted young male viewers.

NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker and Fox TV Entertainment chair Sandy Grushow both rattled off a litany of double-digit drops among males 18-34 on shows such as “Survivor,” “Frasier” and “Monday Night Football.”

“Clearly there’s an issue with Nielsen and its sample,” Zucker said. “If you look at returning shows, or look at sports, it can’t be that football ratings as a whole are up 2%, yet male 18-34 ratings in football are down 22%.”

The network execs discussed their concerns just as Nielsen was releasing its own white paper study on the sudden drop in young male viewing.

For his part, Grushow has hired an independent research firm to conduct an internal Fox study on the matter. “You look at those numbers, and clearly something is amiss,” he said.

Moonves, however, spared the ratings service: “We’re not complaining about Nielsen. If you have a solid base of good development, you’re going to win.”

He had reason to focus on the positive. CBS hasn’t been this competitive in a November sweep since the days of “Dallas,” “MASH” and “Magnum, P.I.” This will be the Eye’s first taste of victory in its target 25-54 demo since 1980 and its first second-place 18-49 ranking since 1983.

While CBS has won November in total viewers several times in recent years, margin of victory will be the largest (more than 3 million) for any net since 1989.

“The year is just beginning, and we have a very young schedule,” Moonves said. “A schedule that’s solid and likely to stay in place for many years to come.”

Indeed, while the Eye net continues to see good numbers from some of its vets — including “King of Queens” and “JAG,” both of which moved successfully to new nights this fall — many of its key players are relatively young. No rookie show on the nets has been a game-changer this fall, but CBS has a crop (“Two and a Half Men,” “Cold Case” and “Joan of Arcadia”) that are critical faves and ratings upgrades.

Also, while much of the focus on CBS during the month was on a controversial two-part movie that never made it to air, “The Reagans,” the net did very well with two other original pics: “The Elizabeth Smart Story” and Hallmark Hall of Fame’s “Fallen Angel.”

And specials came through nicely, with the annual “Country Music Assn. Awards” drawing its largest aud in seven years, and the “Andy Griffith Show Reunion” and “CBS 75th Anniversary” extravaganza scoring well.

Between the movies, anni special and repeats of “CSI” in place of “The Reagans,” CBS more than doubled its perf in the 9-11 Sunday timeslot.

Referring to “The Reagans” hullabaloo, Moonves likened CBS’ sweep to a winning football team that “got thrown for a loss midway through the game and then won by 45 points.”

As for the other nets, NBC claimed its fourth straight November victory in 18-49 (a 4.4 or 4.5 rating to a 4.1 or 4.2 for CBS) and its eighth in the last nine years, buoyed by strong Thursday and Monday lineups and solid perfs elsewhere. Net, though, will finish down vs. last November by 10%-12%.

“It’s good to be back on top,” said NBC’s Zucker, noting that the net had fallen to second this year behind Fox in the February and May sweeps.

He acknowledged that “Coupling” and “The Lyon’s Den” were two high-level disappointments but was pleased with the fall’s two highest-rated new hours in 18-49 (“Average Joe,” “Las Vegas”) as well as the net’s two other first-year laffers (“Whoopi,” “Happy Family”). NBC will air at least one more episode of “Lyon’s Den” this weekend before making the final call on killing the show.

Zucker also pointed out that NBC remains dominant in the key 10:30 half-hour leading into the local news (topping CBS by 48% in 18-49 and by 35% in 25-54) and that it is poised to capture every key daypart for the sweep in demos, including morning news, latenight and daytime.

ABC will finish third in 18-49 (roughly 3.8), 7%-10% below its year-ago averages, with its strongest perfs coming from comedies. Net won in 18-49 on all three nights its airs laffers (Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday), with “Hope & Faith,” “I’m With Her” and “It’s All Relative” all a nice addition.

“For a network on a rebound, we feel we’re in the midst of a very strong season,” said Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment TV Group chairman, pointing out that the net placed first or second in 18-49 on about 55% of the November sked. “We still do not have a monster hit, which is the difference between a dominant and a competitive sweep for us.

“And if you took Thursday out of the week, which happens only in my dreams, ABC is the No. 1 net in primetime (in 18-49).”

ABC Entertainment prexy Susan Lyne said the net feels it has strong product for the rest of the season, including “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital,” as it looks to add to a healthy foundation of a schedule.

“We’ve found (this fall) that you shouldn’t mess with (people’s) viewing habits too much … don’t change the sked around every four or five weeks,” she said of ABC, which didn’t rely on much stunting for the month. “This really is a marathon both in a season and the rebuilding of a network.”

Fox will finish down about 11% in 18-49 from its weak fourth-place finish a year ago, as neither the second edition of “Joe Millionaire” nor the net’s new fall shows have popped in the ratings.

“One big problem for us was we bet on ‘Joe Millionaire’ on two nights, and we were wrong,” Berman said. “Our hope was, if ‘Joe Millionaire’ did half as well as last winter, we’d have a strong November sweep.”

Grushow admitted that the network got greedy. “We thought we could sneak it by the American public one more time, and we were wrong,” he said. “Joe Millionaire” was “based on a gimmick. The audience saw that gimmick and weren’t interested in seeing it again.”

“The OC” continues to grow, however, and should benefit even more beginning in January, when “American Idol” becomes its lead-in Wednesday. Grushow said he expected “OC” to become the season’s top-rated new drama with adults 18-49 once the dust settles.

“I think you’ll see this network take off again in January, while I think you’ll see some other networks come back to earth,” he said. “I look at NBC’s performance and future, and I certainly don’t view them as being in a better competitive position than Fox on a going-forward basis.”

At the netlets, UPN had the better story even though the WB held a slight lead among adults 18-34 through Friday (1.9/6 vs. 1.8/6). UPN was flat in the category, while the Frog was off by 17%.

Boosting UPN were Friday’s “Vibe Awards,” which tied net records for the night in adults 18-34, and last Tuesday’s “Night of Guest Stars,” with strong numbers for comedy “All of Us,” which featured guest star Will Smith.

“For us it’s about building the foundation and gaining some traction here,” UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff said. “Our main goal was to make Tuesday work for us, and we feel happy about the night.”

Some of the WB’s vet skeins were down more than 20% year-to-year, and new drama “Tarzan” has disappointed.

“It’s very schzophrenic for us because on the one hand we’re being sent a lot of positive signals from our viewers and affiliates and then on the other hand being sent very different picture in terms of numbers,” said WB Entertainment prexy Jordan Levin. “For us the disconnect between the national sample and the overnight sampel on a nightly basis has been very confusing.”

* * *

On the final Sunday of the sweep, CBS led in adults 18-49 and other categories with a solid night that included football, “60 Minutes” and the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie presentation of “Fallen Angel,” according to prelim nationals from Nielsen.

From 9 to 11, “Fallen Angel” (4.6/11 in adults 18-49, 17.6 million viewers overall) led in 18-49, 25-54 and total viewers, drawing the largest aud for a movie on any net this fall. This is the best 18-49 delivery for a HHOF pic on CBS since “A Season for Miracles” in December 1999.

Reliable program averages weren’t available for “60 Minutes,” which aired from roughly 7:30 to 9 in most of the country, but it looks to have hit fall highs coming out of football.

Fox ran second in 18-49, led by “The Simpsons” (5.7/14 in 18-49, 12.1 million). Also, “Malcolm in the Middle” (4.6/10 in 18-49, 10.3 million) was on top in the demo at 9, and rookie comedy “Arrested Development” improved week-to-week (3.0/7 in 18-49, 6.3 million).

NBC was led by “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (4.5/10 in 18-49, 14.1 million), ABC by “Alias” (3.9/9 in 18-49, 8.9 million).

(Michael Schneider and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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