NBC cinches sweeps; ABC surprise at No. 2

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General Electric Co.'s NBC, without meaningful competition from either Viacom's CBS or News Corp.'s Fox, handily won the November ratings race for the 11th consecutive period.

"The victory is huge," said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. "We won by 0.1 rating point last year; this year we won by almost one rating point."

The surprise second-place network was Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, which came in with a Nielsen Media Research rating of 4.2 and an 11 share in the key adults 18-49 demographic. NBC bested it with a 5.0 rating/13 share among adults 18-49, earning it the biggest margin of victory for a November sweeps since 1996.

The outcome is important, since November sweeps is one of four program periods that determine the networks' local TV stations' ad rates for the year. The others sweeps periods are in February, May and July.

familiar tactics

NBC used last year's technique of "supersizing" some of its major Thursday night shows Nov. 7 to boost its overall sweeps performance. Supersizing amounted to 40-minute episodes of "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "Scrubs," all with big guest stars. NBC also featured a special Nov. 21 "Will & Grace" episode featuring Grace's wedding, which brought in the show's highest November adults 18-49 rating of 11.8. The network also recorded its best November sweeps 18-49 ratings for "Ed," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Frasier."

Yet Mr. Zucker said the network didn't do any more "stunting," that is, airing high-profile shows with guest stars or special events, than in previous periods. Though the networks did run a number of stunts, including made-for-TV movies such as NBC's "Carrie" and CBS' "Martin & Lewis," most media agency analysts say the networks didn't seem to overindulge in special programming tricks. To that point, most networks focused more on regularly scheduled shows in analyzing their respective sweeps performances.

ABC's strong 4.2 rating/11 share performance owes much to its early-season efforts in improving its Tuesday lineup with new shows such as "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." But it was the network's Wednesday programming, specifically from reality show "The Bachelor" that proved to be a powerhouse. The show pulled in major wins among adults 18-49 throughout the period, and regularly beat NBC's "West Wing."

CBS could only wonder what went wrong. Media agency executives had anticipated that the network would finally overtake NBC this November. Instead, CBS sank 9% in adults 18-49 and 4% in total viewers vs. a year ago. Even so, pushed by "Survivor: Thailand" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," CBS came in a touch behind ABC which turned in a strong 4.1 rating/11 share performance among adults 18-49.

AOL Time Warner's The WB won the trophy for the best ratings gain among all networks. It improved 17% in the adults 18-49 demographic, and more importantly, grew by 20% ratings in key young adults 18-34 demographic over a year ago.

The losers were Fox and UPN. Fox had to combat comparisons this year to its performance last November, when, because of unusual scheduling after Sept. 11, three high-rated World Series games helped boost the network to within a whisker of beating NBC. This year was another story; the network fell 28% among adults 18-49 compared to a year ago.

monday blues

Fox's regular season programming was also off 16% vs. a year ago. One of its major troubles was Monday night, with a slow start for "Boston Public," and the crash of "Girl's Club" which lasted only two episodes. "It is obvious some months will be tougher than others," said Gail Berman, president-entertainment of Fox Broadcasting Co. "It is clearly a transitional year for us."

Viacom's UPN was off to a rough start with "Enterprise," which pulled down the entire network 10% in the adults 18-49 ratings vs. a year ago. Dawn Ostroff, president of UPN, said the show is being retooled and will add more action and humor. Its other stalwart, "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" didn't improve over last year's initial weeks of the season. But Ms. Ostroff said these numbers are still good for the network.

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