Who's not on top?
February sweeps show gains for Fox, CBS and NBC, but, as Millionaire wanes, so does ABC
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/4/2001 7:00:00 PM
CBS, with the help of Survivor: The Australian Outback and some hit new series, clawed its way to the top of the February sweeps. The network claimed first place in both households (9.4 rating/15 share) and total viewers (13.9 million) for the 28-day sweeps period, according to Nielsen Media Research.
NBC, which only managed to tie ABC in adults 18-49 in February 2000, is now alone atop the category with a 5.4/14 average for the month. NBC was able to withstand CBS' Survivor with some last-minute trickery and a strong new "Must See TV" Wednesday-night lineup.
But the biggest story of the sweeps may well be not who's on top but who's not. Skeptics are now second-guessing ABC executives for airing Millionaire four times a week this season and all but killing what was a very good thing.
Last season's ratings champion is off considerably from its February 2000 results, down more than 25% in adults 18-49, 20% in total viewers and another 19% in households. ABC's median age went from 44.1 last year at this time to a 47.2 for the sweeps.
Fox, which was a distant third in adults 18-49 a year ago and down on its luck, has dramatically changed its fortunes. Thanks in part to Temptation Island and the renewed success of many veteran series, Fox finished a close second in adults 18-49 (5.2/13) and was the outright winner in both adults 18-34 (5.5/15) and teens (4.5/14).
And The WB, which was struggling last year at this time, bounced back and is now tied and even ahead of UPN in many ratings categories.
At ABC, it's time to remember the good old days. "For the last couple of years, we have seen that this is a hit-driven business where we are all one hit away from dramatically changing the landscape," says Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment Group's co-chairman. "We had the good fortune of having Millionaire last season, which continues to be a terrific show for us. ... We feel that, if we have seen anything over the past couple of years, [it's that] the hits have to keep on coming every year."
Stu Bloomberg, ABC Entertainment Group co-chairman, adds, "It was our turn with Millionaire, and CBS has a hit with Survivor. As we have all seen, if you have one hit, it immediately catapults you. They have it with Survivor, and we're all one hit away from regaining that."
With Millionaire gobbling four hours of ABC's schedule, the network launched only four series-none of which has broken out of the pack. The network has scheduled a handful of new midseason shows over the next several weeks, including comedies from Denis Leary and Damon Wayans. ABC executives are mum, but Millionaire will likely be trimmed to three or even two weekly installments come September.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, CBS TV President and CEO Les Moonves cheerfully tells reporters: "We have an awful lot to brag about in February. It's been our best sweeps in a long time."
The combination of Survivor, a strong Monday night of comedies and other specials, including The Grammy Awards, led CBS to its first non-Olympics February- sweeps victory (in households and viewers) since 1993. Survivor finished the sweeps as the most watched show-with 28.8 million viewers-and proved CBS schedulers correct in putting it opposite NBC's long-dominant Thursday-night lineup. "Thursday night used to be one of my least favorite nights of the week," Moonves says. "Now it's becoming one of my favorites."
CBS' median age, still the oldest of the major networks, dropped from a 53.6 to 51.6 for the sweeps. On the strength of Survivor, Moonves says he expects CBS to "lead the charge" in percentage increases with national advertisers during the coming upfront season .
To combat Survivor, new NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker devised a plan to extend the comedy Friends to 40 minutes and also added two special, prime-time Saturday Night Live installments. "So much was made of the showdown between Survivor and Friends, and we just want to say we are thrilled with the way we came out of this," says a relieved Zucker.
On Thursdays from 8 to 10 p.m., NBC held almost all of its ground, averaging a 10.3 rating in adults 18-49, just shy of February 2000's 10.4 average.
NBC managed a strong February showing without a reality project, although Zucker says that "it would make everything much easier" if NBC had one and that it's "an incredible priority for us right now." One bad sign for NBC: Its median age went from 44.4 last February to a 49.6 this year.
The loudest cheers at the end of the sweeps may have been coming from the Fox lot in West Los Angeles. A year ago, critics were all but writing off the network, whose poor fall showing resulted in the ousting of its entertainment head Doug Herzog.
Suddenly this winter, Fox gained the most momentum of all networks and has a string of new hits, including Temptation Island.
"We dramatically closed the gap of a year ago," says Fox Broadcasting and 20th Century Fox head Sandy Grushow. "We are happy with the sweeps, but we are certainly cognizant of the fact that we still have a lot of work to do. However, we do move forward with momentum, depth and, I think, a schedule that is solid in key demos on almost every night of the week."
After a year of distribution problems and other woes, The WB has rebounded almost across the board. The network was up 13% in adults 18-49, 10% in adults 18-34 and 2% in total viewers to a 3.9 million viewer average. The WB was off in terms of teen viewership, falling 24% from last year in total teens.
"The network season-to-date is at the highest rating level it has ever been; we're really proud of the programs, and the whole boat seems to be lifting up," says WB CEO Jamie Kellner.
UPN, which was riding high on WWF Smackdown and some new hits last February, dropped back a step this time. (See Top of the Week.) The network was down 12% in total viewers, 12% in adults 18-49 and 11% in households.
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