You think it was the curling?
NBC's Olympics and scripted shows deliver competitors a one-two sweeps punch
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/3/2002 7:00:00 PM
At the conclusion of the November sweeps, CBS President Les Moonves quipped, "For February 2002, I'd like to congratulate NBC right now for their victory aided by the brilliant scheduling of two weeks of the Olympics."
Moonves and other network executives knew that February's ratings book would be virtually useless as a sales tool by nearly every local station because of NBC's lopsided prime time advantage.
So no one is surprised. With a strong two-week performance from Salt Lake City and high ratings for its scripted fare, NBC attracted twice as many viewers during February than its closest competitor and won its eighth consecutive sweep in the key adults 18-49 demographic.
In fact, NBC execs now say that, because of February, NBC has locked up the prime time network races in both total viewers and adults 18-49 for the entire 2001-02 season. That means its competitors can play to improve stats the last three months of the season but not to win.
"We will win this season by the biggest margin of victory by any network in four years," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker last week on a call with TV reporters. "This is in a season that many had predicted would mark the end of NBC's dominance. Instead, our dominance has only grown, and the fact is, we would have had this huge margin even without the Olympics. The Olympics, of course, made it even bigger."
Through the Olympics, on Feb. 24, a few days before the sweeps technically ended, NBC was up 75% in adults 18-49 over last February, with a 9.6/24 Nielsen rating and 26.4 million viewers. At ABC and CBS, it was ugly: ABC was off 32% in 18-49s, with a 3.0/8, and down 38% in total viewers, at 7.9 million; CBS was down 36% in 18-49s, to a 2.9/7, and off 28% in total viewers, with 10 million. The WB was down only 6% in 18-49, to a 1.5/4, and 8% in total viewers, to 3.5 million.
Given the games on U.S. soil and a strong post-9/11 patriotism, NBC's Olympics ratings came in as high as expected. Add a skating controversy, and NBC was off to the races. During the sweeps period, NBC set a record by winning 21 consecutive nights in adults 18-49, the most nights in a row by one network since the advent of Nielsen's peoplemeters. The network averaged more than 24 million viewers per night and improved its adults 18-49 average by more than 70% from last year. It also won nearly each night before and after the Olympics in adults 18-49.
UPN's strategy to attract younger male viewers proved a smart move. With WWF Smackdown!, the latest Star Trek series in Enterprise, and male-themed films, UPN showed across-the-board growth from last February: up more than 20% in total viewers, adults 18-34 and adults 18-49. Smackdown! ranked second only to Olympics coverage on Thursday night during the month, and a broadcast of Lethal Weapon 3 attracted UPN's largest Friday-night audience in the network's history.
At Fox, which started the month off with a highly competitive Super Bowl, network executives finally had some good results to talk about. Using the Super Bowl as its launching pad, they opted to go with nearly all original episodes during February. The network finished second to NBC in nearly every category for the sweeps, including an 18% gain in adults 18-49. The Simpsons, in its 13th season, had an especially strong sweeps period, and a number of Fox's new comedies continued to hold their own in key demos.
"We had a rough start to the season for a number of reasons, and we thought, with the Super Bowl, it would be a mistake to once again go out of business for two weeks during the Olympics," says Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic planning.
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