Ratings riches distributed equally among nets

Most competitive season we've seen, ABC co-chair sez

The age of one-network dominance may be over.

In a year in which sitcoms flopped and real people popped, telepics fizzled and crime dramas sizzled, no single web ruled supreme.

Instead, the Big Four finished the season virtually on top of one another.

CBS barely managed to eke out a win over ABC in the race for viewers. And while NBC topped the demo tally, the difference between first and fourth was just a few tenths of a ratings point– hardly a clear-cut victory.

While all this makes for an exciting horse race, it also means nets are going to have to get used to living in an environment where viewers are more fickle than ever. This year’s phenom is next year’s phe-not.

“This is probably the most competitive season that we’ve all seen,” says ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Lloyd Braun. “It’s never been more true that we’re all one big hit away from being No. 1.”

Braun knows: A year ago, his web was riding the crest of the Regis wave. Virtually overnight, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” catapulted ABC from third to first in just about every ratings measure.

This season, auds — particularly those in the young demo categories advertisers crave — decided “Millionaire” was not the final answer. The quizzer’s ratings plunged and so did ABC’s overall Nielsen fortunes. The Alphabet web became the first net to ever go from first to third with adults 18-49 in a single season.

On the flip side, perennial graybeard CBS suddenly found itself smack dab in the demo derby for the first time in nearly a decade as “Survivor” finally gave the Eye a taste of sweet, sweet youth.

“There’s no longer a widening gap (between webs). We’re all broadcasters,” says CBS Television topper Leslie Moonves. “Yes, we got younger and ABC got older. But the fact the race has tightened wipes out any advantage.”

The just-completed season did have some good news for the nets.

The Big Six once again managed to hold their own against ever-exploding competitors such as cable and the Internet. Overall, the nets attracted just 3% fewer viewers than last season– and that decline is largely attributable to ABC, which dropped 12% from its Regis Philbin-inflated numbers of a year ago.

Powered by the hottest reality series (“Survivor: The Australian Outback”) and the most popular new drama (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”), CBS earned the title of most-watched web with an average of 12.53 million viewers (up 1%).

ABC (12.51 million, down 12%) was right behind; NBC and Fox again ranked third and fourth, respectively.

Among netlets, WB was once again back on a growth track, regaining fifth place and pushing UPN back into the ratings basement. Frog finished first among one of its target auds, femme teens.

In the category advertisers value most when looking at the four major nets — adults 18-49 — the webs were as closely bunched as ever, with less than a ratings point separating them.

NBC returned to first place by a comfortable margin, even though its 4.8 rating/13 share in the demo was down 6% vs. last season. ABC — last year’s demo leader — fell a stunning 20% to third among adults 18-49, while CBS stayed in fourth but increased its demo rating by 8% to dramatically close the gap.

The surprise of the season, however, may be Fox.

Written off for dead 18 months ago, the net gained 7% to finish second in adults 18-49 for only the third time in its history — coming closer to first place than ever before. Fox also ranked first in adults 18-34 for the third consecutive season.

“We had our most competitive season ever,” says Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow. “We truly believe that in spite of all the noise that the other networks are making, the real story is the emergence of Fox as a real player and contender for primetime leadership.”

Credit for Fox’s performance goes to continued strong Saturday and Sunday skeds, a Monday lineup boosted by the addition of drama “Boston Public” and Tuesday sitcom successes “That ’70s Show” and “Titus.” Reality guru Mike Darnell contributed the midseason monster “Temptation Island,” which helped pump up Fox’s Wednesday numbers by 15%.

Over at CBS, Moonves says the Eye’s demo gains are “clearly an indication of how well we’re doing. We’re the only network to get younger.”

While “Survivor” remained the Eye’s “golden goose,” as Moonves puts it, CBS has several other reasons to smile. Crime drama “CSI,” paired with “Survivor,” helped CBS turn around Thursday night.

While NBC still leads, the Eye has cut into the Peacock’s dominance. New drama “The District” seamlessly replaced “Walker, Texas Ranger” Saturdays at 10 p.m., while frosh laffer “Yes, Dear” helped solidify the CBS Monday night comedy block.

For NBC, the season just-ended was one of transition. Jeff Zucker replaced Garth Ancier as entertainment topper; Bob Wright bumped himself upstairs and named Andy Lack his replacement; and the net’s once iron-clad grip on Thursdays loosened. Despite the changes, NBC averted the disaster many had predicted — and managed to end up first in the category that counts.

“A lot of people at the beginning of the season and even midway through the season didn’t think we’d finish in first place,” Zucker says. “It’s a testament to the power of these shows.”

“ER” remains NBC’s Thursday powerhouse, and “Friends” is still strong. The net’s hidden weapon: “Law & Order,” which in its 11th season somehow scored its best ratings ever.

Meanwhile, Frog execs were croaking again after a disappointing 1999-2000 season. “We’ve been the growth story in network TV,” says WB Entertainment prexy Jordan Levin. “I think the story for us is we’re back. We’re up every single night we’re on. It’s not a one-night story.”

Although the weblet still has a way to go before it returns to the levels it enjoyed in 1998-99, WB execs had reason for optimism that the Frog was back on track:. The WB led all networks in growth in many of the major measurements– including adults 18 to 49 and adults 18 to 34.

As for UPN, the netlet has settled back down after taking a “WWF Smackdown”-fueled leap a year before. Without a breakout success this season, and with wrestling mania dying down, UPN held relatively steady. Acquisitions such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Enterprise” might goose those numbers next year.

ABC execs conceded they don’t have much to brag about this season, which saw the Alphabet struggle to get off the ratings heroin known as “Millionaire.” In the end, ABC ended up down on every night of the week.

Still, ABC’s finish in the demo this season simply puts the web back where it was in the demo before Regis: third. And there were a few bright spots for the net, particularly in the longform arena. ABC once again had the most-watched telepic (“Oprah Winfrey Presents: Amy & Isabelle”) and mini (producer Craig Zadan and Neil Meron’s “Life With Judy Garland.”)

“Last year we were riding the incredible, phenomenal ‘Millionaire’ and its halo effect,” Braun says. “This year, ‘Millionaire’ is not the ratings phenomenon it was, and our performance reflects that.”

Overall, the networks are still contending with some of their lowest numbers in history.

Though the rate of decline has slowed, ABC and NBC posted their weakest adults 18 to 49 ratings yet. In total viewers, NBC averaged its worst numbers ever, while CBS managed its second-worst post and ABC, its third-worst.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)