Sweeps victory whets Fox's appetite

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Fox, poised to win its first sweeps victory ever for the key 18-to-49 demographic, already has its sights on a bigger goal-to win the entire broadcast season.

Buoyed by blockbusters "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol," News Corp.'s Fox turned in a spectacular performance in February. Its sweeps rating in the demographic through Feb. 19 trounced General Electric Corp.'s NBC by nearly a full rating point, 5.8 vs. the peacock network's 4.9.

Though the sweeps runs though Feb. 26, program analysts estimate Fox could post a 5.6 or 5.7 rating among adults 18-49. That would best NBC, expected to post a rating between 4.9 and 5.1 in the demo. Sweeps results are used to set ad rates for local stations and can also boost a network's image with national advertisers.

"It's extraordinary," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-audience research, Horizon Media, New York. "They are really going to crush the competition."

Winning the broadcast year would mark a major turnaround for Fox, which began the season delivering 20% fewer ratings points than the previous year. It's also a Herculean task.

Through Feb. 20, No. 2 Fox posted a 4.2 rating among adults 18-49, up from 4.0 a year before. And although NBC's rating in that demo during the period dropped from 5.4 last year, it's still well ahead of Fox at 4.6.

Mr. Adgate gave Fox about a 40% chance of winning the season.

The network hopes its newest reality entry, "Married by America," which makes its debut March 3, can pull in "Joe Millionaire" numbers. That show averaged a 14.7 rating among adults 18-49 for three telecasts during the February sweeps. The finale was the highest-rated entertainment program since CBS's "Survivor" finale in August 2000.

Fox insiders are banking on a 16 share for "Married by America," in which viewers will play matchmaker, compared to a 19 share for "Joe Millionaire." But "Married by America," like "Joe Millionaire," is a reality show, a genre that mainstream advertisers tend to avoid-and Fox's slate is heavy with reality shows.

Fox promoted "Married by America" heavily during "American Idol" and other shows.

The much-hyped Feb. 20 "Michael Jackson Interview: The Footage You Were Not AlIowed To See," did a 6.1 rating among adults 18-49, third behind "Survivor" with an 8.9 rating and an 8.1 for several NBC programs, including a special "Friends."

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