Thursday night puts NBC at No. 1 with adults 18-49

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NBC is going into the crucial November sweeps as the network to beat -- and it could be in for a major knockdown.

Not long after the network under-delivered on its ratings guarantee to advertisers by 15% to 20% for the Sydney Summer Olympics, low ratings for NBC's Major League Baseball playoffs forced it to offer some make-goods. Last month, NBC also quickly canceled several underperforming Monday shows, including "Deadline," "Tucker" and "Daddio."

SOLID FOOTING

Even so, NBC remains on surprisingly sturdy ground. Though ABC and CBS are both ahead of the peacock network in overall household ratings from Oct. 2 through Oct. 29 (with ABC at 13 million, CBS at 12.7 million and NBC at 12.2 million), NBC still is ahead in the demographic numbers that matter most to a majority of TV advertisers -- adults 18 to 49.

During the period, NBC led all networks in that demo, with a 5.1 rating and a 13 share. Those figures are virtually unchanged from a year ago. ABC comes at No. 2 in the 18 to 49 demographic, with a 4.6 rating and 13 share, followed by Fox with a 4.4 rating and 12, and CBS, with a 4.0 rating and 11 share.

NBC's performance in the demographic is attributed to its still successful Thursday night lineup. "Thursday night is still a horse," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of audience research at Horizon Media, New York. "It's still the top night for TV for a network. It's still important to advertisers -- even though `Frasier' has moved out to Tuesdays." Mr. Adgate said those Thursday shows can more than make up for problems on Monday night -- an evening when NBC has been a perennial weak player.

LONG IN THE TOOTH

But the aging of its most popular shows is a disturbing factor for the network. " `Friends' is down 19% among [its] key demographics," adults ages 18 to 49 and 18 to 34, said Laura Caraccioli, VP-director of Starcom Entertainment, Chicago, a unit of Starcom MediaVest Group. "All their shows are aging." She cited "Will & Grace," now in the key 9 p.m. Thursday time period, for helping NBC maintain its dominance that night.

NBC's new Thursday night show, "Cursed," a key launchpad for the network, has been performing moderately so far. It improved to a 12.0 rating and 18 share on Nov. 2, up slightly from an 11.8/18 the prior week -- one the few new shows of the season to improve week to week.

But "Cursed" has been keeping only 76% of the "Friends" lead-in audience -- about average for a new Thursday night show on NBC. Last year, "Jesse," which had the 8:30 p.m. time slot, was retaining 81% of the "Friends" audience on average through the fourth quarter, though it dropped off significantly through the rest of the season.

EYES ON `MILLIONAIRE'

ABC is also being carefully watched by advertising executives. "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" -- its blockbuster cash cow from last year that airs four times a week -- has yet to break a 15 rating. Not only that, "Millionaire" is skewing to an older demographic, as established games shows tend to do. Analysts believe it may be tough for ABC to move quickly to replace it -- or cut back on the number of nights -- should numbers drift lower.

Meanwhile, CBS has seen new shows improve ratings in several time periods vs. the year before. As a result, CBS ordered a full season of episodes for five of its seven new shows -- "Bette," "CSI," "The District," "The Fugitive" and "Yes, Dear." CBS was able to promote these shows heavily through its major summer hit, "Survivor," which helped CBS move up three-tenths of a rating point in the adults 18 to 49 race. CBS is poised to get another shot in the arm after the airing of the Super Bowl, Jan. 28, with "Suvivor II: The Australian Outback."

Fox has gained as well in the 18 to 49 race, so far -- up two-tenths of a rating point to a 4.4. It's new James Cameron-produced one-hour drama, "Dark Angel," which airs on Tuesdays, is pulling a 7.5 rating and 18 share among adults 18 to 49, ranking it a surprising No. 10 of all network shows.

Fox could see further improvement during the sweep as it debuts the rest of its strong Sunday night shows, "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill." The absence of Fox's high-profile programming, some analysts said, has benefited the WB, which has seen improvement in its female teens rating.

UPN UP IN YOUNG DEMOS

UPN also has shown improvement in younger audiences. It's up in all young demographics, ages 12 to 34 and 18 to 34, by up to 47%, according to Starcom MediaVest Group, mostly because of the continued success of its Thursday night hit, "WWF Smackdown."

TV programming analysts said this season has been extremely difficult as far as getting a good read on how TV programming is faring. One factor is a late start to the season, due in part to NBC's Olympic Games broadcasts upsetting scheduling plans of competing networks in late September. This forced networks to scatter the premieres of their returning shows like never before. For instance, NBC premiered "Friends" on Oct. 5, while "Frasier" didn't get its premiere outing until Oct. 26.

"The good news is that it's given the audience time to sample more [programs]," Ms. Caraccioli said. "[But] at the networks, there is a frustration level -- because you don't know where the audience is settling in."

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