Eye, Peacock do the splits

Fox nabs second spot in 18-49 demo

This article was updated at 7:07 p.m.

They’re bitter rivals, but as the season comes to a close today, CBS and NBC must settle for sharing center stage.

In conference calls with reporters Tuesday, the Eye and Peacock nets each declared victory in key ratings categories — both for the May sweep and the 2003-04 television season.

According to Nielsen final nationals through Monday and projections for Tuesday and Wednesday, NBC will win May in adults 18-49 and 25-54, while CBS prevails in total viewers. Fox will surpass CBS for second in the 18-49 demo with its final two nights of “American Idol.”

For the season, NBC is followed in 18-49 by Fox, with CBS close behind in third and ABC farther back in fourth.

While NBC maintained its standing atop the adults 18-49 leaderboard for a fourth straight season, it was a rising CBS that perhaps had the best story to tell.

The Eye, whose chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves maintains is “the most profitable network in primetime,” will finish the season as the only broadcaster up in key categories.

CBS ran away with the total-viewers crown — winning the season over second-place NBC by 2 million viewers, the largest margin of any net in 14 years — and will finish up in the key 18-49 and 25-54 demos that yield the most advertising coin.

“The season featured an awful lot of CBS milestones,” Moonves said, adding that development, sked moves and quality shows have turned around the net, which also won the most primetime Emmys of any broadcaster last September. “The pride, the luster, the title the Tiffany Network is back at CBS. We have reclaimed that mantle.”

In adults 25-54, the Eye will finish on top (either as an outright winner or tied with NBC) for the first time without the help of the Olympics since 1980. And it’s closer to the leader in 18-49 (roughly 500,000 viewers behind NBC) than it has been since 1993.

CBS did have the benefit of broadcasting this year’s Super Bowl, but it also strengthened its series portfolio more than any other net — adding top-rated rookie shows such as “Two and a Half Men” and “Cold Case” and solid performers in “Joan of Arcadia” and “Navy NCIS.” Also, sophomore drama “Without a Trace” emerged as a bona fide hit, one of only a handful of scripted programs on any net to grow its ratings year-to-year.

For the sweep, the Eye saw “CSI: Miami” and “Two and a Half Men” hit series highs, while the conclusion of “Survivor: All-Stars” produced the highest 18-49 rating for one of the series’ finales in two years.

NBC, meanwhile, will finish the season with the same margin of victory in 18-49 over second-place Fox as a year ago (two-tenths). And, if you exclude the expensive primetime sports programming that airs on the other nets, NBC’s advantage grows to 15% over both Fox and CBS.

“We’re going out of the season with a great feeling and with total momentum going into the summer and next season,” Peacock TV group prexy Jeff Zucker said, adding that the net’s strong showings in 18-49, 25-54 and 18-34 “shows you our true strength and breadth and how broad we are.”

The Peacock has lost ratings magnet “Friends” but was pleasantly surprised by the midseason emergence of unscripted skein “The Apprentice,” which became the season’s No. 3 program in 18-49 (behind only the two editions of “American Idol”).

In the May sweep, NBC built a big demo lead and then held on, powered by the series finales of “Friends” and “Frasier” and continued strong outings by Monday’s “Fear Factor” and rookie drama “Las Vegas.”

“Our success this May sweep was done without ‘The Apprentice,’ ” said Zucker of the show that ended its initial season in mid-April but which will be a part of the net’s plans next May.

Fox will finish the 2003-04 season in second place in 18-49, matching last year’s perf, which was the closest the net has ever been to first. Strong postseason baseball numbers and the amazing “American Idol” bookended the net’s otherwise lackluster season, although teen sudser “The OC” was a shining light and will figure prominently in the net’s plans next year.

ABC had another downer of a year both in the exec ranks — losing toppers Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne — and in the ratings, where it will again finish a distant fourth in key categories. If there was a bright spot, it was Sunday unscripted skein “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which instantly made the net a player on the night.

(ABC passed on holding a conference call this time around, given the net’s change of command and lack of any real strong selling points.)

At the younger nets, the WB topped UPN for fifth place in adults 18-34 (1.7/5 vs. 1.4/4), with both webs down year-to-year.

The second season of “America’s Next Top Model” made all the difference for UPN, which performed well with it but struggled without it. And at the Frog, veteran skeins declined, but rookie sudser “One Tree Hill” emerged a hit by season’s end.

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