Sweeping up surprises

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NBC was the big winner in the most coveted age group during this November's sweeps-but what constitutes a winner for advertisers? It's not simply a buy in the highest-rated network or the highest-rated program-it's a buy in a program that delivers more viewers than promised.

In that regard, the big bargain is WB's "Smallville," which posted a 7 household share through Nov. 25 vs. an expected 3.8 share, a whopping 84% over-delivery for advertisers. UPN's new "Star Trek" show "Enterprise" was the second best buy of all network shows this season, delivering nearly 70% more than share expectations.

A TV share is a percentage of households tuned to a particular show; a TV rating represents a percentage of all TV homes.

The data was computed by comparing actual Nielsen Media Research season-to-date household program shares with Advertising Age's Survey of TV Household Share Estimates on May 10 that calculated pre-season estimates by surveying media agencies and networks. Advertising agencies typically figure estimates in the spring for the coming fall broadcast season to help determine the value and pricing of each network show.

Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show" is the third-best program purchase so far this season, nearing 50% more than the anticipated rating. WB's returning "Charmed" was next, at 42% higher, while NBC's Thursday night heavyweight "Friends" came in fifth.

For national TV advertisers, new shows are the big gambles-unlike returning network shows, they have no track record. But in buying these programs advertisers can hit the jackpot, by gaining more audience than they paid for. Still, big national advertisers hedge their bets, buying a range of other shows as well.

"It's similar to buying stocks-if you buy individual stocks, you can do better," said Doug Seay, senior VP-director of national broadcast for Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, New York. "But most people aren't that smart. Most people buy shows like a mutual fund. You spread your risk."

Even if a show fails, it's not that disastrous. There's an insurance policy in which networks offer advertisers make-good commercial inventory to compensate for the difference in audience numbers guaranteed to them at the time of the buy.

For instance, media agencies were estimating Walt Disney Co.-unit ABC's now-cancelled "Bob Patterson" to register a 13.6 share, but it ended with only an 8 share. Advertisers will be "made good" up to the 13.6 share in other shows. Additionally, they have the right to keep their spot in that time period-now occupied by "NYPD Blue." That show is now averaging a 15.0 share, an improvement over "Patterson."

Some advertisers may not want to be in the replacement show, although it can also work in their favor. "Sometimes you can get two 7 rated programs, or even a spot in `ER' later in the year," said one buyer.

Of all the shows on the list, NBC's "Inside Schwartz" is viewed by most programming executives as a less-than-stellar performer for NBC. Even though its time period is right behind "Friends," one of the overall best-rated shows, "Schwartz" keeps only 69% of its lead-in audience share. Typically, networks like the lead-in to be in the 75% to 80% range. Still, for advertisers, "Inside Schwartz" is a bargain of sorts, over-delivering on expectations by some 37%.

NBC's improved performance for "Friends" this year has helped it retain its industry-leading ranking among the key adults 18-49 during this November sweeps, with a Nielsen Media Research 5.1 rating and 13 share. The show benefited from guest appearances from Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. The adults 18-49 demographic is the most highly sought-after of national advertisers, and NBC has now won the November sweeps in that age group six of the last seven years.

Even so, the network lost ground year-to-year, 11% lower than its 18-49 rating during last November sweeps. "NBC is a big loser too," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of media research for WPP Group's Media Edge, New York. "Despite losses they were able to sustain themselves, only because they had a big lead in the adults 18-49 race last year."

NBC narrowly beat out Fox, which posted a Nielsen 5.0 rating and 13 share among adults age 18-49. Fox benefited immensely from the week-long delay of the World Series which pushed three of its games into the first week of the November sweep.

The adults sweeps race between News Corp.'s Fox and General Electric Co.'s NBC was so close that there was a split along genders. "The interesting thing is that Fox wins the men 18-49 and NBC wins the women 18-49," said Mr. Schwartz.

Perhaps the greatest improvement, however, went to Viacom's CBS. The network won the total viewership race, with 13.7 million viewers to NBC's 12.9 million. CBS has now won total viewership three sweeps in a row, and was up 18% in adults 18-49 and 13% in adults age 25-54. This was CBS's highest-rated November sweeps in adults 18-49-with a 4.5 rating and 12 share-since November 1996.

CBS surely benefited from airing many specials which networks are increasingly turning to in sweep periods. This included high-rated efforts "The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers," "Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary Special" and "I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special." About 29% of CBS's November sweep programming came from specials vs. 10% a year ago, according to Media Edge. As a comparison, NBC only filled 14% of its sweeps airtime with specials.

November sweeps numbers for Viacom's UPN improved because of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Enterprise." UPN posted double-digit increases among females; somewhat less for men. AOL Time Warner-owned WB's numbers are generally off, though, down 14% in 18-34 and off 13% in the teen 12-17 demographic.

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