No. 1 conundrum

Divvying demos leaves no clear winner

As parity pervades the primetime ratings wars, the question of who’s No. 1 carries less significance. But three broadcasters can each make a good argument that it’s the net to watch heading into fall.

Riding the “American Idol” locomotive, Fox emerged as the top choice among adults under 50, while ABC has the most water-cooler shows in this category and steady CBS continues to hit a bull’s-eye in the slightly older 25-54 demo.

The 2005-06 broadcast season that ends tonight will go to Fox in the closely watched 18-49 demo — the net’s second title in as many years. But its projected 4.1 rating is just a tick better than ABC (4.0), with CBS not far behind (3.8), according to Nielsen Media Research.

NBC ran fourth for a second straight year (3.3 rating) after capturing eight of the previous nine seasons.

CBS will prevail in adults 25-54 (4.8 rating to ABC’s 4.6) for a third straight year while cruising to its fourth straight win in total viewers (12.6 million to ABC’s 10.8 million).

Fox, meanwhile, had an easy time in adults 18-34 (3.9/13) and teens (2.9/10).

“All of the moons had to line up for us to be in this position, and we feel very fortunate that they all lined up,” Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori said of his net’s dominant finish to the season. “When January kicks in, we wind up having 2½ hours of perennial midseason shows (‘Idol,’ ’24’), and the whole network rises because of it.”

At CBS, Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler said she was most gratified by the net’s midseason successes and the overall frosh crop, of which a whopping six shows return in the fall.

“What we do really well is continue the development process beyond the pilot,” she said. “The real work is from that point on, in making sure the series continues its creative evolution.”

Overall, the broadcast nets retained most of their audience, with the Big Four’s cumulative 18-49 rating (15.1) down just slightly from last year (15.3). Ad-supported cable as a group averaged a 15.5, up slightly from last year’s 15.1.

Looking at nonsports 18-49 averages, Fox’s 4.0 rating is a big 14% improvement on last year. Net is followed by CBS (3.8, down 3%), ABC (3.7, up 3%) and NBC (3.1, down 11%), as the Peacock’s overall average was padded by the Olympics.

UPN and the WB had forgettable lame-duck seasons, with the top shows from these nets living on next fall on the new CW. Spanish-language net Univision, part of the Nielsen Index since January, outrated the weblets for the season in most key categories.

While usual suspects like Fox’s “Idol,” ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and CBS’ “CSI” dominated the top of the program rankings, the biggest stories of the year were the rise of medical-themed skeins “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC and “House” on Fox.

“Grey’s” took advantage of its “Housewives” lead-in and post-Super Bowl airing, while the value of “House” appreciated nicely behind “Idol.” Both became top-five hits that figure to produce for years to come.

On the comedy side, NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” was the only rookie entry to make much noise, finishing second for the season to CBS’ “Two and a Half Men,” which fared well in its new 9 o’clock anchor slot.

Biggest unscripted breakthrough was ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” an unlikely ballroom competition skein that took off last winter after a successful summer run in 2005. And although not as flashy, NBC enjoyed consistent success on multiple nights down the stretch with gamer “Deal or No Deal.”

Here’s a look at each net:

Fox

One year after huge sports numbers padded its totals en route to a first-ever demo victory, Fox truly earned this year’s title thanks to a tremendous second-half finish that saw it win the season’s final 13 weeks in adults 18-49. Net has maintained its 4.1 average in 18-49 for three straight seasons — an impressive feat amid ever-increasing programming options on cable.

“American Idol” claimed the top two spots in the season program rankings, riding its best-ever campaign into tonight’s finale — up about 11%. The hot “House” moved up to the No. 4 ranking among dramas for the season, rising 27% year to year, while Monday’s “24” surged 12% to its best finish.

Fox’s Tuesday (“Idol” and “House”) was the highest-rated night of the week in adults 18-49, marking the first time the net possessed TV’s hottest night.

Also, “Prison Break” and “Bones” emerged as solid rookie dramas, with the former the season’s No. 1 new hour in adults 18-34. And eight-week unscripted skein “Unanimous,” airing behind “Idol” on Wednesday, was the season’s No. 1 new program in 18-49.

“Prison” and “Bones” also were key in the fourth quarter as the net had a stronger post-baseball performance, putting it in better shape for its annual second-half run.

“We’re in this position in May (first place) due to our fourth quarter,” Liguori said. “We didn’t have an exciting Red Sox-Yankees series. What we did was to start laying the foundational bricks for night-by-night improvement.”

CBS

Despite losing “Everybody Loves Raymond” — which went out a year ago as TV’s No. 1 comedy — the Eye continued to perform impressively.

Net remained a dominant No. 1 on the key night for advertising, Thursday, expanding its lead over second place to a hefty 53% in 18-49 and 67% in 25-54. Although “Survivor” has lost some steam, it was again a top-10 performer kicking off the night, and sked partner “CSI” was the most-watched scripted series for a fourth straight year (25.2 million viewers).

“CSI” siblings “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: NY” also led their timeslots, as did crime counterparts “Without a Trace” on Thursday and “Numbers” on Friday.

Among the six rookies returning next fall to CBS are “The Unit” and “Criminal Minds” — the top two new dramas among both adults 25-54 and total viewers despite opposing tough competish from “House” and “Lost,” respectively.

Another nifty newbie was Friday anchor “Ghost Whisperer,” which led its timeslot for the season in key demos and paved the way for a huge turnaround: CBS went from third to a comfortable No. 1 on the night.

ABC

One year after rising from the dead, the Alphabet kept the momentum going by growing its audience and challenging for the season demo title.

While it still has numerous holes to address on its sked (and will no longer have “Monday Night Football” in the fall), ABC can count on some of the most talked-about shows on television in “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

“Housewives” and “Grey’s” became the top two scripted series on television in adults 18-49, teaming for a powerhouse Sunday lineup that captured the final 17 weeks of the season in key demos.

The Alphabet also could crow about its success among upscale viewers. Its 18-49 average in homes earning $100,000 or more grew to a 4.3, compared with a 3.9 for both NBC and Fox and a 3.7 for CBS.

One area that really needs work, though, is comedy. ABC will become the first network ever to not return a half-hour laffer to its fall schedule.

NBC

It was another tough season for the Peacock, although it managed to slow the bleeding in the final few months thanks to “Deal or No Deal.” The gamer improved each of its three regular timeslots by more than 60%.

Alongside “My Name Is Earl,” second-year comedy “The Office” was the fastest-growing series vs. last year, rising 60% in 18-49 (4.0 from 2.5).

Drama remains a tough nut to crack for NBC, as the fall sked includes only one hour to bow in the last two seasons (“Medium”) while vets “Law & Order” and “ER” continue to decline. Give credit to the latter, though, which has been NBC’s top drama in 18-49 for each of its 12 seasons.

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

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