Feel-good stories were few this February sweeps, with almost every syndicated show down year to year. But in turbulent times that include recession, war and political tussles, viewers seem to want an escape.
Maybe that lack of heaviness helped Warner Bros.' Ellen DeGeneres, which did decline 8% in this February sweep compared to last year, but is managing to stay near its season high and is improving its demos. Ellen worked through the writers' strike, leaving the star with just her wits and ability to relate to people.
“Over the past couple of months, we've had to focus less on celebrities, so we've had more human-interest guests on the show and they've really been resonating. Ellen is fantastic with real people,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions.
DeGeneres was thrilled when her writers returned after the strike ended on Feb. 12. But the show has changed. It's “more focused on Ellen now. The writers obviously enhance the show, but she's also been more spontaneous and it's working,” says McLoughlin.
Over the course of the February sweeps, which ran Jan. 31 through Feb. 27, Ellen averaged a 2.4 live-plus-same-day national household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. And Ellen is the only syndicated talk show that's been able to maintain its season-to-date 2.2 household rating average this year.
The real story is in its demographics. The show has improved among women 18-34 by 17%, while every other talk show declined in that key demo. In fact, CBS' The Oprah Winfrey Show has dropped 26% among young women, second only to the 30% decline of NBC Universal's Jerry Springer.
Ellen is flat among women 18-49 and has dipped by 6% among women 25-54.
All together, Ellen is the third-ranked talk show, behind Oprah Winfrey and CBS' Dr. Phil, among women 18-34 and women 18-49, although the show ranks fourth in households.
The light-hearted talker may be benefiting from an overall ratings dip for Oprah, with which Ellen goes head to head in many large markets. In February, Oprah was down 15% in households, 19% among women 18-49 and 18% among women 25-54. That said, Oprah remains the dominant talk show in syndication, leading the pack with a 6.1 household rating and notching its 86th sweeps victory in a row in February.
Ellen wasn't the only syndicated show with a good sweeps story to tell: CBS' Judge Judy was the only show in all of syndication to notch a year-to-year gain, improving 4% over last February and 8% over February 2006 to a 5.3.
Debmar-Mercury's Family Feud also was one of the sweeps' success stories. The show was unchanged from last February, holding steady at a 2.1.
Unlike the veteran shows, most of syndication's first-run rookies could boast double-digit growth since their September premieres. That's because many of them started with minuscule audiences.
Warner Bros.' TMZ, the group's only access show, was the top-rated newcomer with a 2.3 average, up 15% since September. Twentieth's The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet was the highest rated of the seven daytime rookies, coming in at a 1.1 average, up 38% from its national premiere last fall. NBCU's Steve Wilkos and Sony's Judge David Young each averaged a 1.0, improving 11% and 25%, respectively.
The rookie off-nets also performed. Warner Bros.' newbie, Two and a Half Men, was the top off-net sitcom at a 5.5 average, up 83% from its September debut. Twentieth's Family Guy was next at a 4.6, up 31% from September. And Warner Bros.' George Lopez, at 3.1, improved 41%.