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Webs can’t agree: Who’s on first?

Ad buyers says net ratings claims no longer have the cachet of the past

It’s the most dreaded word in the network business: parity.

At the TV upfronts, being “No. 1” usually translates into ad dollars, but this week none of the networks can make that claim in its entirety.

It’s a big change from five years ago when NBC towered above its rivals and a first-place finish translated into hundreds of millions in extra ad coin.

Now, three of the Big Four nets — ABC, CBS and Fox — are separated by just three-tenths of a Nielsen ratings point. And each net can lay claim to some No. 1 stat: Fox has the young demos. CBS boasts the most viewers. ABC is tops among upscale auds.

“They’re all going to have a good story, but nobody’s going to have a dominant story,” says one former webhead.

Last year, Fox won the season in adults 18-49, but NBC — despite coming in fourth — maintained the highest ad rates (even though it took a big hit from previous years). CBS, a close No. 2 in 18-49 (and No. 1 with regular programming) billed the most dollars per hour of primetime, edging out Fox, which programs seven fewer hours than the other nets.

All of this suggests that being No. 1 isn’t necessarily something that a network can sell to advertisers.

“Your goal is to be No. 1, but that’s just about competitive spirit,” says ABC Entertainment prez Steve McPherson. “It isn’t even a factor in terms of our financial bottom line.”

Scott Gross, senior VP of national broadcast TV for ad buyer Initiative, agrees. He says he and his peers have become numb to network claims of supremacy.

“There’s such parity in terms of adults 18-49 ratings, everyone’s going in saying they’re No. 1 in something,” he says. “But it’s not about buying a network. It’s about buying programs.”

During the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when NBC dominated, the Peacock consistently grabbed a premium for its first-place status. In fact, the only year it didn’t lead the overall upfront tally was in 2000, when ABC was able to claim first in demos thanks to the short-lived phenom called “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Now, the race is so tight that blockbuster sports events can alter how a net ends the season.

Fox wouldn’t have won the 2004-05 campaign sans Super Bowl. Likewise, ABC challenged Fox for the lead this year mostly because it had both the pro and college pigskin championships.

One former Peacock suit says the big difference between now and his net’s glory days is the fact that NBC didn’t just finish first. Most years, it crushed the competition.

“We were hitting it in absolute ratings, in adults 18-49, in upscale urban audience,” the exec says. “And we also had all the awards — the Emmys, the Peabodys, the Golden Globes. The chance to be associated with all that provided us with a reason to charge a premium.”

Even then, NBC’s sales advantage had a lot to do with its vast number of hits, from “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers” to “Seinfeld” and “ER.”

No modern network has such a cachet — not even the “American Idol”-fueled Fox. That doesn’t mean Fox won’t try to position itself as TV’s all-around leader, milking its second consecutive victory in viewers 18-49 for all it’s worth.

“It’s like chicken soup. How can it hurt you to be the No. 1 network?” asks Fox program planning chief Preston Beckman.

He says that nets “do get a premium for being No. 1, especially in our case, where we’re going to be No. 1 for two years.

“There’s a perception around being in first that benefits you,” he says, arguing that network rivals who claim otherwise are simply spinning.

“Everyone who does these jobs does these jobs for one reason, and one reason only: To be the best,” Beckman says. “I don’t think there’s anyone else at any network who’s going to feel any differently, no matter what they say.”

While a Nielsen crown might not be worth as much coin as it once was, it still does wonders for egos.

There’s a reason CBS’ on-air promos, for example, label virtually every one of its shows a “hit” or “No. 1”

“At the end of the day, it matters, because not being No. 1 doesn’t feel as good as being No. 1,” Beckman says.

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