What a difference a year makes. This time last year, ABC and
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
were taking off on the network's glorious ride to a season victory, crushing the competition in all ratings categories.
This season, it's a different story for ABC and many of its rival networks.
With strong performances by veteran and sophomore series such as
The West Wing, NBC claimed the November-sweeps title in adults 18-49 and tied ABC in total viewers. As
goes, so goes ABC: As the game show has gotten older, so has the network's median age.
Fox, which was being written off this time last year, appears to be back on track and gaining momentum with a mix of new and returning offerings. And The WB, which struggled through distribution woes and UPN's wrestling fortunes a year ago, has come charging back with solid performances by a lineup of mainly veteran series.
Veteran series have been NBC's calling card this season, especially in November, with hits
ER, Law & Order, Friends
carrying the network to a going-away victory in adults 18-49. NBC averaged a 5.6 national rating in that demo for the sweeps period, up 4% from a year ago. NBC was 12% ahead of ABC in the key demographic, the
network averaging a 5.0 rating. ABC was off 15% from its November-sweeps average a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"As you will remember, last November we trailed ABC by half of a ratings point, and I'm very happy to report, on a demographic basis, we have turned that around by 1.1 ratings point," said NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa.
In total viewers, the race came down to the final night, with ABC edging NBC by the slightest margin: 14.0 million viewers to 13.9 million. And NBC executives once again pointed out that their affiliates were the beneficiaries of the largest lead-in average for late-night news programming: NBC's 10:30-11 p.m. (9:30-10 p.m. CT) average in adults 18-49 was a strong 7.0, up 6% from a year ago. ABC was a distant second, averaging a 4.3 rating, a 10% decline.
But not everything is so ducky at NBC: The network has already canceled three shows and is likely to pull the plug on
soon. "We still have time periods that fall in the work-in-progress category, but that's why we do development for next year," said Entertainment President Garth Ancier.
ABC executives had to defend their programming of four weekly installments of
this season and the potential long-term damage that could do. ABC's median age has gone from 41.6 years last November to 46.2 years this year, a rise of 5%. Last November,
Millionaire's median age was 44.1; this year, during the sweeps, the average viewer was 53.1 years old.
"The age of [
Millionaire] has skewed up a little bit, there is no question about it," said ABC Entertainment TV Co-Chairman Lloyd Braun. "But we have seen when we have editions like
that the age comes down."
ABC's change of strategy on Friday nights, dropping its TGIF programming in favor of older sitcoms this season, has also hurt its median-age average.
A year ago, Fox finished the November sweeps a distant third in adults 18-49, a full rating point behind ABC. This year, Fox averaged a 4.7 rating in the demo-still good for third place but only by 0.3 rating point. The network also tied NBC for first place in adults 18-34 and won in teen viewers.
"Season to date, we are the only network to show year-to-year growth in adults 18-49. Even when we exclude the World Series from our average, we have added over 1 million total viewers to our audience, and no other network can come close to that," said Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox TV Entertainment Group.
CBS finished fourth in adults 18-49 for the sweeps, averaging a 3.8 rating (down 5%) and third in total viewers (12.1 million, down 9%). That left CBS TV CEO and President Les Moonves talking about the season's second half, when the network has the Super Bowl and a second installment of
Survivor. "Part of our strategy, as we head into the first of the year, is to stay close, because we feel that the second part of the year, we are going to be much stronger."
The WB enjoyed the most growth of any network in both adults 18-34 and adults 18-49, pulling itself up from last year. The network jumped 22% in the former and 19% in the latter from a year ago. It even topped rival UPN in both total viewers (4.5 million vs. 4.1 million) and adults 18-49 (1.9 vs. 1.7) despite continued growth by UPN. Veteran series like
led the way, aided by the addition of
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch
and a new Sunday-night lineup.
"It feels a hell of a lot better than last year. Last year was terrible, and this year is wonderful," said WB chief Jamie Kellner. "What's the reason for our success? It's the growth of the stations. It's being careful and loyal to the programs that were on our schedule last season and continuing to nurture some of them creatively."