Clean sweep at NBC in odd ratings race

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No question General Electric Co.'s NBC will skate to gold in the February broadcast sweeps period, but who will win the silver?

With only a few days to go, News Corp.'s Fox looks to be on its way to a solid second place for prime-time viewers among the 18-49 demographic that advertisers relish.

The bronze? Through Feb. 21, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC held third-place narrowly in that demo over Viacom's CBS, but CBS has the Grammy Awards on Feb. 27, the final night of sweeps, and could ride the show, featuring U2 and Alicia Keys, to a third-place finish. Among 18-49s, NBC led with a Nielsen Media Research 9.2 rating/23 share, Fox posted a 6.0/15, ABC was at 3.1/8 and CBS at 3.0/8. Viacom's UPN had a 2.0/5 share and AOL Time Warner's WB had a 1.6/4. (A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV set on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of TV households, whether their sets are on or not.)

But media buyers may find it hard to put much stock in the results no matter what happens. Usually, the sweeps months have the networks trying to outdo one another with all kinds of ratings stunts. But this February has been extraordinary with the Super Bowl on Fox (it was bumped to Feb. 3 after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) and the Olympics on NBC that have outperformed projections.

"The irony is that the sweeps for years have been, by their nature, atypical because everybody stunts and hypes and pumps things, so the whole idea of using them to buy is horribly skewed," said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and senior VP-research, Lifetime network. "I can't imagine using this February sweep to make buying assumptions for next February or the coming months. How could you, on a month full of stuff like this, consider this predictive of anything?"

Sweeps come four times a year and mark the only time when all 210 local markets are measured. Media buyers use them to make spot buying decisions. Networks have an incentive to compete fiercely to help their affiliates and boost the revenue at their many local stations.

'UNPRECEDENTED'

Even though March is not a sweeps month, it should prove interesting to gauge which shows draw viewers after the Olympics. NBC has a lot riding on "Watching Ellie," the new comedy with ex-"Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and "Leap of Faith," a show about a newly single woman, which is yet another try to find a hit in the so-far-challenging Thursday 8:30 post-"Friends" slot. CBS has the NCAA basketball tournament.

"It's unprecedented to have [the Super Bowl and Olympics] in the sweeps and it will render many of the first weeks of [February] data less [important]," said John Rash, senior VP-director national broadcast negotiations, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. "While it's still significant, it won't be as useful for longer-term projections. What will be most important for spot negotiators is to see if, and how quickly, previous viewing patterns re-establish themselves post-Olympics."

Besides the Super Bowl, media executives said Fox was helped by airing new episodes of its top shows. The network also works aggressively to target 18-49s with shows such as "The Bernie Mac Show," and "Malcolm in the Middle."

Fast Facts

February Sweeps Peak

(through Feb.21, among 18-49 year olds)

NBC 9.2 rating/23 share

Fox 6.0/15

ABC 3.1/8

CBS 3.0/8

UPN 2.0/5

WB 1.6/4

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