Fox and CBS sharing wealth

Nets neck and neck as biz has a banner year

It’ll be a photo finish, but the 2004-05 season will end tonight with two clear-cut winners: Fox and CBS.

For the first time in its 19-year history, Fox will end a season as the No. 1 network among the advertiser-coveted demo of adults 18-49 (as well as adults 18-34 and teens). The Eye, meanwhile, can claim near-parity with Fox in young adults, an outright win among adults 25-54, and the most dominant total viewer victory by any network in 16 years.

Good news also extends to ABC: The season’s comeback kid soared 16% above last year’s adult 18-49 average and rose from a distant fourth in the demo to a solid third.

Overall, despite troubling long-term trends for broadcasters, the network biz had a banner year, with the six-net average dipping just a tenth of a rating point year-to-year, compared with annual drops of at least half a rating point since the start of the century. If it hadn’t been for NBC’s swan dive from first to worst, broadcasters would have actually reversed their slide.

“It was a good year for broadcast TV,” said ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson. “The idea that you can have a Sunday night like a few weeks ago, where ‘Survivor’ does well, and we do phenomenal numbers and Fox does well with its animation means that you’ve got all these people coming to broadcast television. It shows there’s just a thirst for appointment television.”

Crix hail season

Indeed, this season saw several smashes (“Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” “House”) in addition to some more modest hits (“CSI: NY,” “Medium,” “Numbers”). Critical acclaim has also accompanied the ratings success, with several national critics already hailing the 2004-05 season as one of the medium’s best in years.

Nina Tassler, wrapping up her first year as president of CBS Entertainment, said the Eye’s victories this season repped the culmination of Viacom co-prexy Leslie Moonves’ “master plan” for the net.

“Slow and steady wins the race,” Tassler said. “Referring back to Leslie’s agenda, it was to build our schedule night-by-night and never turn away from our core audience. You want your viewers and households, and as a bonus you’ll get 18-49 as well.”

CBS has plenty of reasons to crow at season’s end.

Image makeover

Ten years after Moonves took control of CBS, the net has once and for all shaken its image as the “geezer” net. Indeed, had CBS broadcast the Super Bowl in January, it might have claimed outright victory in adults 18-49.

In addition to longtime power centers such as “CSI” and “Survivor,” net made inroads elsewhere, with “CSI: NY” displacing “Law & Order” as the 10 p.m. Wednesday leader, “Amazing Race” turning into a bonafide hit and “Two and a Half Men” emerging as a credible successor to “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Latter laffer ranked as TV’s No. 1 sitcom in its final season.

“One of the most exciting opportunities for us has been the arrival of ‘Two and a Half Men’ to Monday nights,” Tassler said.

From a revenue standpoint, Eye’s biggest accomplishment was its emergence as the No. 1 on Thursdays among adults 18-49. Ending NBC’s longtime dominance of the night should pay off handsomely in the upfront ad market, with the Eye capturing an even bigger percentage of the lucrative film marketing money.

Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori, on the job for barely two months, didn’t try to claim any personal credit for the victory– but he also didn’t downplay its historic significance.

“We’ve outlined a seven-night-a-week strong schedule,” he said. “With growth in returning shows, growth in new shows, strong moves to improve nights, this is a broad, four-corner foundation we’ve created for the network,” he said.

There’s no denying “American Idol” played a big part in Fox’s win, but the fact that Fox was actually able to grow the ratings for a four-year-old show ranks as a huge accomplishment in itself.

Net also gets points for nurturing “House” into a hit, and successfully re-launching “Family Guy,” thus shoring up its Sunday animation block. Fox also made the year’s gutsiest scheduling moves by shifting “24” to Mondays and “The OC” to Thursdays — and both paid off.

Reality unit delivers

And despite some fall failures, Fox’s reality division delivered with returning successes “Trading Spouses” and “Nanny 911.”

“The bar is set high, and the goal of everyone here is not to limbo underneath it, but high-hurdle over it,” Liguori said. “I do feel the target on our back is bigger and fatter than any other network. People are coming to work with their game faces on.”

When called by Daily Variety for comment, Par prexy Gail Berman, who ankled the web earlier this month after five years as head of the net’s entertainment division, said she was “proud of the team” that delivered Fox its victory.

“It was a brilliant season to be a part of,” she said, adding that she wished Liguori “and the team all the best going forward.”

With Fox laying a solid foundation for next season, it seems unlikely to suffer from its usual fall collapse come September — a fact that could make next year’s ratings race even tighter.

‘Comeback in progress’

Though McPherson has labeled the net’s performance a “comeback in progress,” no network had better luck developing and marketing new shows this year.

The hit parade started with “DH” (the year’s No. 1 scripted show on any net) and “Lost” and ended this spring with “Grey’s Anatomy” — the latter skein displacing “ER” as TV’s top-rated medical drama. In between, ABC also hatched some solid reality players (“Wife Swap,” “Supernanny”) and turned second-year unscripted skein “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” into a blockbuster.

McPherson said his exec team “put their heads down and did the work” to help create the net’s revival.

“I don’t think there’s any magic formula to this,” he said. “We just tried to prioritize our marketing campaigns and be in business with the right people so that shows would stay good beyond the pilots.”

As for NBC, the Peacock’s slide –17% by season’s end — got worse as the year wore on.

Net has ranked fourth in demos for eight of the last 10 weeks, with every single returning NBC show (save “Law & Order: SVU”) down year-to-year.

Bright side? Midseason drama “Medium” is a keeper Mondays at 10 p.m., one of several strong shows the Peacock has throughout the week in that hour.

‘Core sked still performs’

“Ultimately there is a core schedule there still performing,” said NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly. “The 10 p.m. strength remains pretty extraordinary given the complete weakness early in the evening.”

As for the weblets, both the WB and UPN stumbled out of the gate, with both nets’ big bets — WB’s “Jack and Bobby” and UPN’s “Kevin Hill” — failing to gain traction. Still, the two networks recovered by the end of the season and are counting on big gains for the fall.

UPN saw its Monday night perf grow after Nielsen realized the comedy block had been undercounted, while “Veronica Mars” earned critical notice and “America’s Next Top Model” continued to score big for the net.

“It was a big year of transition,” UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff said. “We’ve been gaining momentum. Look at the May numbers and we have some great growth stories.”

WB, meanwhile, watched “One Tree Hill” turn into a signature show for the Frog, while network stalwarts like “7th Heaven” and “Gilmore Girls” had stellar years. Network was hampered, however, by the lack of any frosh series success.

“The returning shows came back by and large in really strong force,” Frog entertainment topper David Janollari said. “The bad news was self-evident, we didn’t have a giant hit out of the gate from the new shows. The good news is ‘One Tree Hill’ ignited in a huge way.”

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)