Careful sweeps for nets

But rival networks see a chance to cut into NBC's faltering 18-49 base

November sweeps are upon us, and, while ABC, CBS and NBC all have a few tricks up their sleeves, the prime time TV schedule so far this year is remarkably stable, with a majority of new shows picked up for a full-season run.

"November is probably the hardest sweep to schedule because you still are trying to evaluate the new shows and trying to give them every chance to thrive," says Kelly Kahl, CBS executive vice president of programming and scheduling.

Going into the quarterly ratings contest, CBS holds a strong lead in households and viewers, NBC is maintaining a less strong lead in adults 18-49, ABC has managed to make Tuesday nights its own and is waging a fair battle on Wednesdays, and Fox is eagerly anticipating finally letting its new shows out of the gate.

Analysts and media buyers don't expect the picture to look too much different going out of sweeps, but they will be paying attention to whether ABC continues to fare as well on Tuesdays and Wednesdays once Fox's prime time normalizes after the World Series. They also want to see what kind of in-roads CBS can make into NBC's 18-49 lead.

If CBS continues to erode NBC's lead in the demo—and CBS is up 8% in 18-49 so far this year while NBC is down 4%—the network could become that much more desperate to keep Friends
on the air, notes Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president, director of broadcast research, Initiative Media.

Analysts routinely point out NBC's difficulty in developing a comedy that can replace Friends, which has been toppled from its No. 1 slot in households by CBS's CSI
in the past two weeks but still delivers outstanding ratings and is the No. 1 show in prime time in 18-49.

"Honestly, if you are the number-one network and you only have one problem and you can't even solve that after eight years," says one analyst, "you are going to be subject to criticism."

It's not that NBC hasn't tried: It has launched comedy after comedy on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and, although Will & Grace
is a bona fide hit coming up on its 100th episode (and doing well in its first year in syndication), it's still no Friends. On Tuesday nights, NBC is struggling in its 8-9 p.m. ET hour with Just Shoot Me
and In-Laws, although the declining Frasier
still manages to win its time period in 18-49 and deliver a strong lead-in for the just picked-up Hidden Hills
at 9:30 p.m.

"I think NBC really has an issue from 8 to 9 p.m.," Koerner says, "and they have to fix it."

Also helping NBC in the 18-49 race are its two new Sunday-night dramas: Both American Dreams
and Boomtown
were picked up for a full season last week. NBC's nemesis on Sunday nights is ABC, whose Alias
and The Practice
are keeping ABC in the 18-49 game, although Law & Order: Criminal Intent
is making things tough for ABC's sophomore spy thriller.

ABC is building on its strong 18-49 performance on Tuesday nights, led by 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, particularly after last week, when it beat even the World Series, albeit a championship tournament that looks to be the lowest-rated Series in history. ABC's Wednesday nights also are showing impressive results from 8 to 10 p.m., but the network loses steam in the 10 p.m. time period, when MDs
drops ABC off a ratings cliff.

Although analysts say ABC has reason to be "cautiously optimistic" about its performance this year, the network hasn't yet been fully resuscitated. "They haven't turned the network around, but the battleship is beginning to turn," says Garnett Losak, vice president and director of programming for Petry Media Corp.

The real question is whether ABC can maintain its momentum even when Fox returns with its own brand of family-oriented comedies—That '70s Show
and Grounded for Life
—and the season premiere of critical darling 24
on Tuesday nights, and Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer Presents
and Fastlane
on Wednesdays.

"For us, the November sweeps is really about getting into pattern and getting our shows on the air consistently," says Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning.

As for CBS, it's all systems go, but, basically, the network is chugging along on the strength of its Monday-night comedy lineup anchored by Everybody Loves Raymond, its CSI
franchise on Monday and Thursday nights, Survivor: Thailand, and its solid Tuesday-night dramas.

Meanwhile, The WB and UPN seem to have flip-flopped this year, with The WB a media darling showing stellar growth numbers on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and UPN fighting off a lot of negative press because nothing much is working.