ABC Heads for Sweeps Title

Third-place Fox eyes bigger prize
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At the end of the February sweeps Wednesday, ABC's Super Bowl coverage and aggressive original programming strategy to counter NBC's Olympics should allow it to win in adults 18-49. Through the three weeks ended Feb. 22, ABC was averaging a 5.6 rating/14 share in 18-49, followed by NBC at 5.0/12; Fox with 4.9/12; and CBS, which ran lots of reruns this month in the face of stiff competition, at 3.5/9.

But where Fox, CBS and ABC will end up by May—the primary concern of advertisers—is a different matter. Based on the renewed strength of Fox's American Idol, network researchers and ad buyers are anticipating a three-way race for the 2005-06 network crown. “Fox has tremendous potential for victory as the season goes on,” says Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat USA.

Fox could repeat last season's win in the 18-49 race on the power of Idol and its midseason shows. Brill thinks Prison Break's return will make a better fit with 24 than ice skating.

Some competitors say Fox can extend the number of hours of Idol to achieve the desired winning number. But a Fox rep responds that such comments “diminish” the contribution of the double-digit time-period growth this season of House, Bones, 24 and Prison Break.

By the time the networks cross the finish line in May, ABC's Super Bowl and NBC's Olympics momentum will have faded. CBS, meanwhile, will have returned to its strong roster of original programming, including The Amazing Race and CSI, which starts this week.

February's sweeps may be remembered for one particular hour on Feb. 23, when the three top reality shows squared off against each other and the Olympics at 8-9 p.m. Idol, making its first Thursday-night appearance, averaged a 9.7/24 to trounce CBS' Survivor (5.4/13), the Olympics (4.4/11) and ABC's Dancing With the Stars (3.7/9). All the reality shows were down from their season averages, but network TV was a big winner. Overall viewing levels rose 7% in the hour versus the first 22 weeks of the season.

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