CBS only net to gain audience in sweeps

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While the four major broadcast networks crowed publicly about various sweeps victories last week, advertisers moaned privately about makegoods. ABC, NBC, Fox, WB and UPN were all down in advertiser coveted prime-time viewers in the adult 18-to-49 demographic by as much as double-digit percentages from the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

General Electric Co.'s NBC claimed overall victory in 18-to-49-year-old viewers in November with a 4.4 rating. Walt Disney Co.'s ABC came in first in 18-to-49 viewers in about 55% of the sweeps period, which ran from Oct. 30 to Nov. 26, and News Corp.'s Fox said that it expected to have the highest rated 18-49 show with its Wednesday night melodrama "The OC."

Viacom's CBS was the real sweeps victor, gaining a significant 2% of the 18-to-49 demo over last year, coming in second in the category for the first time since 1983 with a 4.1 rating, just shy of perennial leader NBC. CBS, which also claimed victory in total household ratings, was the only network that did not lose audience share.

Last year, NBC registered a 5.1 in 18-to-49, down 14% this year. ABC was down 10% in 18-to-49 viewers with a 3.8 rating (4.2 last year), while Fox lost 9% of the young demo with a 3.2 rating this year, down from 7.3 last year. The WB lost 19% of its 18-49 viewers and UPN was down 11%.

biggest problem

"I would just like to say congratulations to CBS, they had a great sweeps," said a gracious Gail Berman, president of entertainment at Fox in her conference call last week to the press.

To advertisers, however, what mattered most this November was not CBS but ADU, as in audience deficiency units. The industry also calls them makegoods, a term increasingly considered a misnomer by media buyers.

"In network prime-time everybody is getting makegoods, everybody needs makegoods," said Jason Maltby, senior partner, managing director-national broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare, "especially with the kinds of audience drop-offs we're seeing. The danger is in this soft scatter market you don't want the networks giving you all your makegoods now, over-delivering the fourth quarter and under-delivering the rest of the year."

Makegoods, free time used to meet ratings guarantees, can be more convenient for networks than advertisers because they are sometimes given in fringe time slots that might not attract the audiences that most appeal to advertisers.

"ADU's are not really makegoods, because they're audience deficiencies," Mr. Maltby said, "but you try as close as possible to mirror what you bought in the upfront. It's not always easy. It's a negotiation."

The problem particularly affects time-sensitive or seasonal spots such as back-to-school promotions, retail sales and sweepstakes. "Almost every kind of category has a seasonality to it," Mr. Maltby said.

Although there has been substantial audience loss, according to media executives most of the networks anticipated it and therefore didn't overpromise.

"There is erosion," said Peggy Green, exec VP-national broadcast at Publicis Groupe's Zenith Media. But, she added, "Last year the networks were realistic in their estimates because they had such a terrible year and that's why they pretty much delivered on their schedule because their estimates were realistic."

NBC is the one network that perhaps was surprised by its audience loss, especially in 18-49. "They are going to have a compensatory issue with advertisers," she said.

And the audience drop in 2003 is expected to affect how advertisers and agencies approach the 2004 upfront. "Unit rates will probably not go up," Ms. Green said. "They will go down."

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