NBC shows ratings improvement

There was a time, as recently as a few years ago, when the November sweep was an overcaffeinated month of excess.

Webheads would complain about the ratings period yet bow to the ratings horse-race pressure. They’d schedule gimmicky specials and expensive miniseries and then hold conference calls with reporters at month’s end to boast about their successes — misleading as they might be.

But several factors — including the decline of the telepic as a major ratings draw and Nielsen tracking demo information for major markets on a daily basis — have rendered “sweeps month” more irrelevant than ever.

ABC hastened the decline of sweeps in November 2004. Rising from the ashes to a leadership position thanks to “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” Alphabet webheads decided to cancel the conference call and tone down the bragging. Rivals eagerly followed suit, glad to be rid of such monthlong scrutiny.

Now, nets are increasingly choosing to let their regular programming do the heavy lifting; the end result is that the sweep’s leaders come as little surprise.

ABC, which has been consistently winning this fall among adults 18-49, will capture the sweep that ends tonight by a comfortable margin in that key measure, while CBS will prevail in the 25-54 demo as well as total viewers.

After tying CBS for the 18-49 lead last year, the Alphabet’s outright November victory in young adults will be its first since 1999. And for the Eye, the November triumph in adults 25-54 and total viewers are its fourth and sixth straight, respectively.

NBC is on the rise, meanwhile, and not just because of football. Fox, on the other hand, will finish deep in fourth as the net is not competitive without “American Idol.”

Based on Nielsen estimates and projections through tonight, ABC will finish with a 4.1 rating in adults 18-49 (down 7% vs. a year ago), followed by CBS (3.8, down 14%), NBC (3.7, up 12%) and Fox (2.9, down 9%).

In 25-54, CBS will edge past ABC (4.8 to 4.7), while in total viewers, the Eye’s average audience of 13 million easily tops ABC’s 11.6 million.

ABC’s successful programming strategy included a mix of series and some annual events, highlighted early by the finales of “Dancing With the Stars” and “Lost” and late by the “American Music Awards” and college football’s highly rated USC-Notre Dame contest.

Key to the net’s performance was “Dancing With the Stars,” which set series records in its third edition and drew the largest overall audience for any telecast during the month (27.52 million for its Nov. 15 finale).

It averaged a 6.6 rating in adults 18-49, helping to compensate for the loss of “Monday Night Football,” which had a huge November a year ago (7.7 rating) in its final season at the Alphabet.

Net also claimed the top two series in 18-49 during the month with “Desperate Housewives” (8.8) and “Grey’s Anatomy” (8.5).

The combo of “Grey’s Anatomy” and rookie success “Ugly Betty” has dramatically changed the net’s performance on Thursday. Net tripled its year-ago average in some categories on the night, which is primo for advertising.

ABC also has reason to be happy with the performance of first-year drama “Brothers & Sisters,” which has emerged as the season’s No. 2 new program in 18-49 and has meshed well with “Housewives” on Sunday.

Net does have some holes to fill, though, as neither “Six Degrees” nor “The Nine” clicked.

CBS was down vs. last year, when it was boosted by four-hour telepic “Category 7″ and other specials, opting this year to stick with its bread-and-butter skeins. Except for one pre-scheduled movie and an hour of news coverage on Election Night, CBS aired all regularly scheduled programming.

“It’s always been more important to gain viewer equity in series,” said CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl, “because series are long-lasting assets that can produce for you for years.”

He pointed out that all the nets are better off allowing young shows a chance to develop an audience rather than pulling them for a one-time, artificial ratings spike.

The Eye got some pretty good production out of newbies “Shark” on Thursday and “Jericho” on Wednesday, while Monday laffer “The Class” is hanging in there.

CBS also has seen a strong fall for “Criminal Minds” (which hit a series high during the month) and nice showings for other sophomores “Ghost Whisperer,” “Close to Home” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

The “CSI” franchise remains potent, winning with both “Miami” and “NY” and a solid No. 2 demo finish behind “Grey’s Anatomy” for the original on Thursday.

NBC’s 12% growth is the largest year-to-year gain in November for the net in at least 20 years.

Certainly, top-10 performer “Sunday Night Football” (6.9 average 18-49 rating for the month) has helped, but the net also claims the season’s No. 1 new program in “Heroes.” The Monday drama peaked this month, achieving a 6.9 rating in 18-49 — the best for a first-year skein on any net in two seasons.

Another strong selling point for NBC has been its 20% build year-to-year among adults 18-34, rising from fourth to second in this demo.

Also helping was gameshow “Deal or No Deal,” which has been dominating its Monday hour, and vet dramas “ER” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which are leading their hours.

Success in these and other areas has enabled NBC to be patient with first-year skeins “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Friday Night Lights” and “30 Rock,” but they will need to improve if they are to be invited back for a second season.

Fox will benefit from the college football championship game and the return of “American Idol” in January, but it emerges from November deep in fourth place.

“House,” “Prison Break,” “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” have been the standouts thus far, but the net’s rookie class — including laffer “‘Til Death” and dramas “Justice” and “Standoff” — has disappointed.

For nascent net the CW, November has been about finding its level — and it seems to be stacking up with numbers similar to the WB’s from last year.

UPN transfers “America’s Next Top Model” and “WWE Smackdown” are excelling at their new address, but the net would like to see some growth from its Monday comedy block, which has started slow on the new net after shining for years on UPN.

Also helping out was the return of former WB laffer “Reba,” which bowed this month and has emerged as the CW’s top-rated comedy — despite little promotional fanfare and airing in a tough Sunday 7:30 p.m. slot.

* * *

Looking at the Nov. 20-26 frame, ABC rolled to victory in adults 18-49 (3.9 rating/11 share) as the other three major nets tied for second with a 3.3/9, according to Nielsen.

CBS and ABC tied for the week’s 25-54 lead (4.3/11), with the Eye winning for a 10th straight frame to start the season in total viewers (12.2 million).

The Alphabet enjoyed a strong Tuesday courtesy of “The American Music Awards” (4.7/13, 10.85m) and then got a big lift from Saturday’s USC-Notre Dame college football game (5.0/16, 14.65m).

One thing that didn’t work was NBC’s Wednesday concert spec “Madonna: The Confessions Tour Live” (1.8/5 in 18-49, 4.61m). It lagged the offerings on the other major nets as well as the CW and Univision among viewers under 35 for its two-hour time period.

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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