Networks off to quick start

The shadow of Fox’s “American Idol” looms in the coming days, but it’s ABC and CBS that are off to the fastest starts in the May sweep.

Through the first three nights, the Alphabet web held a slight edge on the Eye in adults 18-49, with CBS taking the lead in adults 25-54 and total viewers. Fox, with its midweek combo of “American Idol” and “House,” is expected to win the month in 18-49, but ABC could be a force to deal with.

On Thursday, according to Nielsen, ABC kicked things off with a victory over CBS in 18-49 (5.2 rating/14 share to 4.8/13) — the first time the net has started the May sweep on top in at least 15 years. And on any May sweep Thursday, it’s ABC’s best average since a celebrity edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in May 2000.

The Alphabet ran fourth in demos from 8 to 9 with “Ugly Betty” (3.1/9 in 18-49, 9.62 million viewers overall), although the net nearly doubled its performance in the hour on the same night a year ago. “Grey’s Anatomy” then won in key demos at 9 (8.4/21 in 18-49, 20.08m) though its numbers were on the low end of its range, while the season finale of “October Road” closed out the night with a demo victory for ABC (4.1/12 in 18-49, 9.00m).

Compared with the same night a year ago, when “American Inventor” and “Commander in Chief” opened the sweep, ABC was up by 152% in 18-49 (5.2 vs. 2.1). CBS declined by 28% (4.8 vs. 6.7) and NBC by 20% (3.2 vs. 4.0); fourth-place Fox was up by 17% (2.7 vs. 2.3).

At CBS, “Survivor: Fiji” (4.6/14 in 18-49, 13.83m) was in line with its recent performances to win the 8 o’clock hour, leading into a solid second-place demo finish at 9 for “CSI” (5.9/15 in 18-49, 20.20m); the crime drama was on the low end but eked out a victory in total viewers over “Grey’s Anatomy.” Rounding things out, “Shark” (3.8/11 in 18-49, 14.10m) placed second in 18-49 and first in adults 25-54 and total viewers.

NBC was up vs. a year ago in the opening hour with “My Name Is Earl” (3.2/10 in 18-49, 7.49m) and “The Office” (3.9/11 in 18-49, 7.56m) but down from 9 to 10 with “30 Rock” (2.4/6, 4.72m) and “Scrubs” (2.3/6 in 18-49, 4.65m). At 10, “ER” (3.7/10 in 18-49, 9.52m) remained at its recent low levels, jumping from its lead-in but still placing third in 18-49.

Fox was solid at 8 with “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” (3.5/10 in 18-49, 10.13m) but fell back at 9 with “Trading Spouses” (1.9/5 in 18-49, 4.76m), while the CW’s “Smallville” (1.5/4 in 18-49, 3.88m) was off about 20% vs. the same night a year ago on the WB, but lead-out “Supernatural” (1.3/3 in 18-49, 3.33m) was on par.

Friday went to CBS, which was paced by the slot-leading “Ghost Whisperer” at 8 (prelim 2.6/10 in 18-49, 9.1 million).

The Eye won all three hours in 25-54 and total viewers, but ABC was more competitive than usual in younger demos thanks to a new “Wife Swap” at 9 (prelim 2.2/7 in 18-49, 5.5 million) and “20/20″ at 10 (prelim first-place 2.7/9 in 18-49, 7.7 million). Newsmag collected its best numbers in 10 weeks with a report on transgendered youth.

NBC, which had been competitive on the night, struggled with gamer “Identity” (prelim 1.5/6 in 18-49, 5.2 million) and dramas “Raines” (prelim 1.4/5, 5.6 million) and “Law & Order” (prelim 1.8/6, 7.4 million). Its all-original night tied Fox’s repeats of “House” and “Bones” for third place.

Through three nights of the sweep, ABC held a slight lead over CBS for the 18-49 lead (2.9/9 vs. 2.8/9), followed by Fox (2.1/7) and NBC (2.0/6), while CBS was on top in total viewers. Four-week ratings period ends May 23.

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