First to last: sweeps pain for Peacock

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With NBC ending the February sweeps in fourth place, NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker is facing the previously unthinkable: finishing the season at the bottom of the pile.

Fox came out of the February sweeps period on top in the sought-after 18-to-49-year-old demographic, thanks to "American Idol" and the Super Bowl. ABC was No. 2, and CBS was third.

NBC saw its adult 18-49 viewers fall off by 25% (3.6/9 vs. 4.8/13) during sweeps, which ran from Feb. 3 to March 2. The networks are much closer in season to date 18-49 ratings, but NBC is still No. 4. CBS and Fox are tied for first, with a 4.0/11 rating/share. ABC garnered a 3.9/10, and NBC has a 3.7/10. NBC sold itself in the last year's upfront at a premium, as the No. 1 network in 18-49s.

The decline has prompted buyers and analysts to argue that NBC is going to have to hand back hundreds of millions of dollars in make-goods, and that its ratings slide could affect its premium pricing in the coming upfront. NBC vehemently denies these claims.


Michael Gallant, media analyst with CIBC World Markets, takes a dim view of NBC's double-digit ratings losses on four of seven nights, and notes with particular concern the drop on its all-important Thursday night-it fell 2 ratings points and is now No. 2 behind CBS-which captures a third of TV ad dollars. "From a prime-time perspective, the share losses we've seen indicate that they may lose $500 million on a full-season basis," he said. (A second analyst said NBC would have to give back money, but that $500 million was "a little aggressive.")

"They're taking some of that hit in the current season through make-goods, but they'll also take the CPM hit in the upfront," Mr. Gallant added. He predicts that ABC is in line to pick up $270 million in prime-time dollars, and CBS could snare $230 million thanks to the new pecking order. NBC booked $2.9 billion in last May's upfront.

Randy Falco, president, NBC Universal Television Networks Group, took issue with Mr. Gallant's view. "Premiums aren't built in one upfront and they certainly don't go away in one upfront. NBC continues to be the home of the most affluent shows on TV and this is where our premium remains. "

He flatly denies there are any make-goods. "We planned for the departures of `Friends' and `Frasier' this year and as a result, we have no make-good issues," he added. Despite this, two other observers-a media buyer and another analyst-said there were "underdelivery" issues, which would inevitably require some form of make goods.

How did the once-proud Peacock Network get here? NBC failed to launch a hit comedy this season. Another gambit, NBC's early start to the fall season engineered to get a boost off the Summer Olympics, did nothing to help now-canceled "Father of the Pride." "Joey" and "Will & Grace" have lost steam. "The Apprentice" is still a strong, but its ratings are down from last season.

The sweeps showing ratchets up the pressure for Mark Burnett Productions' boxing reality show debuting tonight, "The Contender" to succeed. If NBC doesn't find a big hit soon, its negotiating position with advertisers could be affected come May.

Steve Sternberg, exec VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global, said NBC could still be OK if several shows perform moderately well. New series on the horizon include "Law and Order: Trial By Jury" and mockumentary "The Office."

"It is a big decline for the sweeps, [but] you have to realize the network race is so close," he said. February sweeps results show NBC down in every major demo: households, adults aged 18-34, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

The network, for its part, is putting a brave face on the sweeps figures. NBC suggested that without all the specials such as the Oscars and Super Bowl, it came within a tenth of a ratings point of second place in regularly scheduled programming. NBC also had nine shows in the top 30 for the sweeps in adults 18-49. In the final full week of February, NBC had one show in top 10, eighth-placed "ER." ABC's Oscar coverage topped the list.

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