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Fox, ‘Idol’ find sweeps groove

Reality skein, drama help net capture key demos

Who needs the Super Bowl when you’ve got “American Idol”?

Thanks to 10 nights of the blockbuster music talent show and strong perfs by dramas like “House” and “24,” Fox has captured the February sweep in key demo categories — even if the year’s highest-rated event is taken out of the mix.

After finishing deep in fourth during the November sweep, Fox has begun another “Idol”-fueled second-half rally by claiming the February sweep in adults 18-49 for the second time in three years. For the season, it has moved into a dead heat with wire-to-wire leader CBS in the demo (4.02 rating) and is the favorite to capture the 2004-05 campaign by that measure for the first time in the network’s history.

It also was a great month for ABC, which will finish in second place in adults 18-49 (Daily Variety, Feb. 25) — up year-to-year by more than 10% and with its highest average for any sweep month in two years (4.1).

CBS will finish down by roughly 10% to place second or third in most categories, but slumping NBC took the biggest hit, declining by about 25% to place fourth across the board after winning the month a year ago.

“We win with or without the Super Bowl,” Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman said. “The numbers look good any way you look at them.”

Strong February perf and Fox’s likely seasonlong win could bode well for Berman, given that her current contract with Fox is set to expire this summer. At the same time, insiders said Berman is still contemplating her next career move.

‘House’ calls

On Tuesday, Berman beamed about the “extraordinary numbers and creative success” of “24,” which has worked better than expected on Mondays, and praised Tuesday’s “House,” which she called “our best compatibility with ‘American Idol.’ ”

Also, Berman noted “The OC,” despite modest overall numbers, has allowed the net to establish a series presence on Thursday, where it has led its timeslot in viewers under 35.

As for sweeps in general, Berman said, “My hope is that they’ll atrophy away. If they weren’t here, that would be OK with me, but while they’re here, hey, it’s a good day for Fox.”

Indeed there were plenty of good days for Fox in February, highlighted by Super Bowl XXXIX on the first Sunday of the month and the unstoppable “American Idol,” which continues to dominate anywhere the net puts it.

For the first time in a sweep month, its Tuesday and Wednesday editions stood as the top two-rated series in adults 18-49 as well as other key categories. Also, “House” was the sweep’s top rookie program (6.0/14 in 18-49), and “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” combined for the net’s sixth straight Saturday sweep victory.

The competition

ABC claimed three of the top 10 series during the February sweep in 18-49 — Sunday’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and Wednesday’s “Lost” — and its news division had six of the month’s top seven newsmag editions in adults 25-54.

CBS won Thursday in adults 18-49 in a February sweep for the first time since at least 1987 — even though “Survivor: Palau” aired only twice. Net also moved to the 18-49 lead Fridays at 10 with rookie drama “Numbers” and remained on top (although by a slimmer margin than November) on Wednesdays at 10 with “CSI: NY.”

NBC could boast about Monday drama “Medium” and also a winning showing in both adults 18-49 and 25-54 in the 10:30 half-hour leading into late local newscasts. Still, “Fear Factor” was down sharply year-to-year, and “Joey” came in well below half of what “Friends” netted in the Thursday leadoff slot a year ago.

(Final sweep averages, which include tonight’s action, will be released by Nielsen on Thursday.)

* * *

Buoyed by above-average showings on most nights, Fox and ABC were the clear leaders for the week of Feb. 21-27, with the former edging the Oscar-boosted Alphabet in adults 18-49 (5.1/13 to 5.0/13). ABC led in adults 25-54 (5.8/13) and total viewers (14 million).

Final numbers for the Academy Awards telecast edged up in nationals to 42.14 million viewers overall (down 3% year-to-year), a 15.1/34 in adults 18-49 (off 1%) and a 12.8/33 in adults 18-34 (up 5%). Also, thanks to to Chris Rock as host, this year’s show grabbed the highest Oscar rating in six years among male teens (7.3/21).

This makes the Oscars a strong No. 3 on the list of the season’s top-rated events, behind only the Super Bowl on Fox and January’s AFC Championship football game on CBS.

Fox again turned over half of its sked on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to “Idol,” which crushed the competish each night. Tuesday’s edition was the week’s top series draw in both adults 18-49 (11.5/29) and total viewers (28.25 million), with Wednesday and Monday ranking third and fourth for the week in 18-49, respectively.

Oscar rival

Also for Fox, “House” (6.4/16 in 18-49, 15.53m) again won its Tuesday hour, spec “Stars Without Makeup” lifted Thursday (3.1/7 in 18-49, 7.36m) and theatrical “Independence Day” (3.9/9 in 18-49, 9.23m) was an above-average Sunday performer despite opposing the Oscars.

Aside from the Academy Awards, ABC highlights included solid perfs by “Supernanny” on Monday (4.2/10 in 18-49, 9.71m), a 40-minute “According to Jim” on Tuesday (4.3/11, 10.45m) and a dominant perf on Wednesday by “Lost” (7.5/20 in 18-49, 19.49m). Also, a Peter Jennings-hosted UFO spec boosted Thursday (3.3/8 in 18-49), and “Forrest Gump” provided the net’s strongest Saturday movie scores of the season (3.2/10, 8.64m).

CBS drama “CSI” was the week’s top scripted program (9.8/23 in 18-49, 28.11m), teaming with “Survivor” and “Without a Trace” to pace a strong Thursday lineup (Daily Variety, Feb. 28). Also, “Two and a Half Men” (5.5/12 in 18-49, 17.50m) looked good at 9, its presumed fall timeslot.

NBC was repped in the weekly top 10 by “ER,” although the medical drama hit a firstrun series low (7.6/19 in 18-49, 16.03m).

And at the weblets, the WB topped UPN in adults 18-34 (1.6/5 vs. 1.4/4), with “What I Like About You” and “Reba” shining for the Frog on Friday. “Reba” is enjoying its strongest February sweep to date in both adults 18-49 and total viewers.

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