NBC's march to overtake CBS in prime-time ratings this season took a major step Monday, as ratings figures showed it winning the crucial November ratings sweeps period by .6 of a ratings point, with troubled ABC still mired in third place.
According to A.C. Nielsen Co. estimates, NBC, bolstered by the continued success of Bill Cosby's hit family comedy series, averaged a 17.8 rating in November. NBC said the win was the first November sweeps it had won in 11 years. Second-place CBS had a 17.2, while ABC brought up the rear with a 16.0 average. Each ratings point is equal to 859,000 homes.
The ratings sweeps, a time of intensive audience measurement, are highly important to network affiliates, which use the results to set local advertising rates. Sweeps periods occur in November, February, May and July.
Although one Madison Avenue executive flatly predicted that the November returns mean that NBC will win its first prime-time season in 11 years, an NBC spokesman modestly declined to agree, saying only that "we're extremely pleased to be where we are now."
CBS predictably refused to wave the white flag, saying the season is far from over. ABC spokesman Tom Mackin did likewise, although he wryly conceded that this November "has not been our best sweeps period." But Mackin noted that ABC now has a new programming chief, Brandon Stoddard, "and let's look forward to a better 1986."
Stoddard, well-regarded by the Hollywood creative community, was named president of ABC Entertainment on Nov. 12. He succeeded Lewis H. Erlicht, architect of the loser-littered 1984-85 schedule that put ABC in third place for the first time in more than a decade.
ABC's slide enabled NBC to enjoy a second-place finish in last season's ratings after the Peacock Network had struggled for nine years as No. 3. But CBS won the season, the sixth consecutive time it had done so.
The ratings tale for November wasn't unexpected, said Frank McDonald, a television analyst with New York's Cunningham and Walsh advertising agency.
"I don't think it surprised anybody, the way it came in," he said. Had not ABC aired its high-rated "North and South" miniseries last month, he added, "I think they'd have been in far more trouble than they are."
"The rank is now set--NBC first, CBS second and ABC third," he said when asked how he thought the current season will end. "What the (ratings spread) will be is the only question."
"That's a definite possibility," Mackin said of McDonald's forecast of another last-place finish for ABC. "But let's wait until all the numbers are in."
"ABC is doing very poorly; it's not really in the race," said CBS research vice president Arnold Becker. He said he expected CBS, with its traditional holiday offerings, to do well this month against NBC.
"It's going to be tight at the end of the year," he added, emphasizing that the midseason series changes that all three networks will soon make "is really going to control" the prime-time standings at season's end.
Can CBS fend off NBC's quest for No. 1 in the ratings?
"We are certainly hoping that it will," Becker replied. "I suppose the better odds are on NBC now." But CBS, in trying to remain No. 1, has particularly high hopes for the new Mary Tyler Moore sitcom, "Mary," premiering on Dec. 11, he said.
In that new series, Moore plays a Helpline columnist for a struggling Chicago newspaper; she played a TV news producer in her high-rated "Mary Tyler Moore Show" on CBS from 1970 to 1977.
"If Bill Cosby had ended up on CBS we would have buried them (NBC)," Becker said. "But if 'Mary' turns out to have his kind of (ratings) numbers, it could be a whole different game."