Regis Philbin and the Rock may seem like mismatched bookends, but the series they represent--the quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and wrestling program "WWF Smackdown!"--have helped ABC and UPN buck the inexorable trend toward declining viewership that has plagued network television.
Among the six broadcast networks, only those two outlets achieved year-to-year audience gains for the just-completed 1999-2000 prime-time season, which began in September and ended Wednesday night.
Yet thanks to ABC, the four major networks--ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox--reached about 48 million people during an average minute of prime time, essentially mirroring their total from the previous year. That halts a stretch of steady viewer erosion, with overall declines of 4% or more each of the last three seasons.
"Millionaire" was clearly the phenomenon most responsible for stemming this tide, not only thrusting ABC to the top of the standings for the first time in five years but luring back some of those viewers fleeing to cable.
Moreover, TV viewing in general rose for the season, providing little support thus far for assumptions that the Internet and new technologies will take a bite out of TV watching as a leisure-time activity. For better or worse, Nielsen Media Research data indicates more than 98 million people watch TV in prime time during an average night, a 2% increase from year-ago levels.
With "Millionaire" running at least three nights per week since January, ABC finished the season averaging 14.3 million viewers, a stunning 21% jump over the 1998-99 season.
Beginning from a much smaller base, UPN also rebounded from its dismal performance last season with an extra 1.2 million people tuning in, or about 3.9 million viewers--an infusion of young males attributable largely to "Smackdown!," which more than doubled the network's Thursday night ratings.
Some of those gains came at the expense of the other broadcast networks, whose ratings diminished anywhere from 3% to 20%.
CBS held on to second place at 12.4 million viewers, edging NBC (12.3 million). Fox slipped to just 9 million viewers, a 15% swoon versus the prior year. The network endured a disappointing fall before exhibiting some promise in calendar year 2000 with the new comedies "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Titus."
Those signs of life came too late for entertainment President Doug Herzog, who left in March after just 15 months in the job. Fox will thus open the 2000-01 campaign with its sixth new entertainment chief in the last decade, as producer Gail Berman takes her turn in what has become second only to "Millionaire" as TV's most-celebrated "hot seat."
The WB also saw its teen-driven mystique cool considerably this season, as viewing of the network sank roughly 20%, to 3.6 million viewers, behind UPN in the fifth-network race. While WB remains the most popular option among teenage girls due to such programs as "7th Heaven" and "Dawson's Creek," this year's lineup did little to broaden that base. (The network is part-owned by the Tribune Co., which is buying the Los Angeles Times.)
NBC claimed a bit of redemption during the monthlong May rating sweeps, a key period local stations use to negotiate advertising rates that also concluded Wednesday.
Finishing second in overall viewing, NBC tied ABC in ratings among adults under 50--the measurement that still most closely approximates profitability because media buyers target that age group. CBS, which attracts an older audience, is fourth by that measure.
NBC attained demographic parity in May despite facing off against 18 hours of "Millionaire," including four high-rated celebrity editions. The network takes that as a sign that it can be competitive with ABC after trailing the network for the two previous rating surveys in November and February.
Looking at regular series, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" unseated "ER" as TV's most-watched program, though NBC's "Must-See TV" Thursday lineup remained a formidable attraction.
Viewing of "ER" slipped a mere 2% versus the previous season, overcoming the departure of George Clooney and lower ratings for the NBC sitcoms preceding it. Audiences for "Friends" and "Frasier" shrank 11% each compared to last season, and NBC canceled the two comedies that aired adjacent to them, "Jesse" and "Stark Raving Mad."
NBC can derive some satisfaction from its success outside prime time, as "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Today" keep dominating late-night and early-morning ratings, respectively. CBS' streak as the most-watched network in daytime also continues unabated, having begun during the Bush administration.
NBC also ranked first for both the May sweeps and the season from 10:30 to 11 p.m., the pivotal half-hour for TV stations leading into late local newscasts, thanks to "ER" and the remarkably durable "Law & Order," which posted significant ratings growth in its 10th season.