Fox tops ABC to place No. 2 in demos

While 'Seinfeld' was key, 'Merlin' and others helped

NBC has formally claimed victory for the 1997-98 season and for the May sweeps, which comes as no surprise, since this is probably the first May victory ever clinched on Christmas Eve.

That’s the day Jerry Seinfeld told NBC execs of his decision to wrap up the nine-year run of his “Seinfeld” sitcom at the end of this season, and that probably marked the last time anyone had a chance of beating NBC this May.

But NBC’s sweeps month victory goes a lot deeper than “Seinfeld’s” farewell 41.3 rating, 58 share (all figures based on Nielsen data). The net’s other key stunt, which alone would probably have locked up the month, was “Merlin” (21.2/32), NBC’s highest-rated miniseries in adults 18-49 in 14 years.

There wasn’t much drama to any of the sweeps races, with finishing positions in most key categories a fait accompli early on. In the key 18-49 demo, it was: NBC, 7.6/21 (up 9%); Fox, 5.0/15 (down 6%); ABC, 4.4/13 (down 21%); CBS, 3.8/11 (down 14%).

NBC’s victory margin in this demo, 57%, is the highest for a May sweep on record at Nielsen.

Fox again bests ABC

One of the few surprises of the month was the ease with which Fox beat ABC in the key 18-49 demo, making it three sweeps in a row for Fox over ABC and five out of the last six.

And for the 1997-98 season, which formally ended May 20, Fox has taken the historic step of beating ABC for second-place in adults 18-49 for the season. The two nets tied for that position last year, but Fox has moved past ABC this season without benefit of the Super Bowl or World Series, which aided its cause a year ago.

NBC has reached the 1997-98 primetime Nielsens finish line with its third-straight season-long win and ninth in the last 13 years. And, despite mixed results throughout the season for NBC, the Peacock’s margin of victory continues to grow in the key adults 18-49 demo, as its primary pursuer of past seasons, ABC, falls into hard times.

Even when only regular programs are included and NBC’s powerful Super Bowl and World Series boosts are discounted, the advantage is 33%, still the biggest lead on record.

The WB surpasses UPN

The season’s most dramatic movement came at the netlets, where the WB has ended three seasons of futile pursuit and streaked past rival UPN.

The WB turned it around when a slow-starting Monday lineup gelled this past season, helping the net successfully launch a Tuesday sked that immediately became the strongest lineup on the netlets.

UPN hit lean times when new management essentially gave up on the old sked to concentrate on new directions that won’t have a chance to start turning things around until next fall.

The season’s household averages are: NBC, a 10.2 rating, 17 share (down 3%); CBS, 9.6/16 (even); ABC, 8.4/14 (down 9%); Fox, 7.1/12 (down 8%); WB, 3.1/5 (a record, up 19%); UPN, 2.8/4 (down 10%).

Counting only regular-scheduled programming (which eliminates Olympic, Super Bowl and World Series fluctuations that boosted CBS and NBC and dragged down Fox), season averages were: NBC, 10.4/17 (down 5%); CBS, 9.4/16 (down 4%), ABC, 8.5/14 (down 9%); Fox, 7.0/11 (down 3%).

Season standings (all programs) in the adults 18-49 demo were: NBC, a 6.7 rating (even); Fox, 5.0 (down 7%); ABC, 4.9 (down 9%), CBS, 4.3 (even); UPN, 1.6 (down 16%); WB, 1.6 (up 23%).

Overall figures declining

Again, counting regular programming only, which eliminates Olympics, Super Bowl and World Series anomalies, NBC was down for the season by 1%, ABC by 7%, Fox by 2%, CBS by 11% and UPN by 15%, while WB improved by a heady 23%.

CBS notes that it’s reduced NBC’s lead in households this past season from 0.9 rating points to 0.6, cutting the gap by 33%. Much of that is attributable to the one-time boost of the Winter Olympics, and counting only regular programming, CBS remains 0.9 rating points behind, just a 9% reduction vs. last year’s 1.1 gap. Even including the Olympics, CBS remained 2.4 rating points behind NBC in adults 18-49, and reduced its adults 25-54 gap by only a hair, from 2.1 to 2.0.

The season-ending 1997-98 stats reveal the usual bleak assortment of all-time worst scores, despite rare boosts such as the Winter Olympics and the “Seinfeld” finale. The parade of worst-ever marks includes lowest winning rating ever by NBC, lowest rating in Big Three history by ABC and lowest-ever four-network rating.

That four-net tally declined by 5% from a 37.0 to a 35.3, which happens to be the smallest dropoff for the Big Four in four years, since the last Winter Olympics. But both the 1992 and ’94 Winter Olympics actually boosted the Big Four to season-to-season ratings increases, making this year’s 5% falloff somewhat of a comedown.

ABC has failed to show any gain for the 17th time in 18 seasons and has been plunging precipitously for the last three seasons, down 12% two years ago, down 13% last year and down 9% this year.

So in those three seasons, ABC has lost nearly one-third of its average rating. There were, however, a few hopeful signs for ABC in 1997-98, including rookie success “Dharma & Greg” and the sophomore blossoming of “The Practice.”

Fox has made important progress in the past season by coming up with the semester’s biggest hit, “Ally McBeal,” and getting a payoff for its long-term patience with “Party of Five,” now a Wednesday heavyweight.

The season’s rate of homes using TV increased slightly vs. last season, to 60.1% from 59.8%. While the four-net share slipped from last term’s 62 to a 59, basic cable improved from a 32 to a 36. If those rates of gain and decline continue into the future, the basic-cable primetime share would equal the Big Four’s by 2002.

The top 10 cable services, however, grew last season by a relatively modest 6%, while the hundreds of basic services taken as a whole enjoyed impressive 20% growth.

Pay-cable maintained a 6 share for the season, and independent stations grew from an 11 to a 12.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)