Seventeen days of Winter Olympics coverage left little suspense as to who would emerge victorious from the February ratings sweeps.
With an estimated 84% of U.S. households viewing NBC at some point during the Games, the network breezed to victory, with an estimated 24.2 million viewers per average minute of prime time over the four-week survey, which concluded Wednesday night.
NBC nearly doubled its average audience from last year's February sweeps, when it finished second to CBS. The Olympics also inflated NBC's performance among 18- to 49-year-old viewers, the primary measure networks use to determine advertising rates.
Fox--which benefited from broadcasting the Super Bowl, which was postponed because of the fallout from Sept. 11, during the first week of the sweeps--placed second, with an average 12.7 million viewers. Fox was up nearly 20% over last year in total viewers, while CBS and ABC finished third and fourth, respectively, with both networks seeing their February sweeps audience decline by double-digit percentages.
This wasn't unexpected, as CBS and ABC sat out the competition on certain nights, airing reruns instead of wasting original episodes of popular series against the Olympics. In addition, CBS, which won last year's February sweeps on the back of its popular show "Survivor," waited until the Olympics had concluded to begin airing its latest installment of the staged, unscripted series. The network averaged about 10.7 million viewers for the sweeps, down 22% from last year.
ABC, meanwhile, continues struggling to regain its identity a year after the ratings crash of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The network finished with an average 8 million viewers, down more than 35% from last year.
Although CBS missed out on bragging rights, network officials pointed to gains for the UPN network, whose management was consolidated into CBS earlier this year by Viacom, the parent company for both.
Despite competition from the Olympics, UPN was up more than 20% compared with last year, averaging 4.5 million viewers--its best February sweeps performance in five years, with "WWF Smackdown!" being joined this season by "Enterprise," the latest addition to the "Star Trek" franchise, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"UPN has a much younger audience, which made it more protected against the Olympics than CBS was," said David Poltrack, executive vice president of planning and research for CBS Television.
Similarly, ratings for the WB were down a modest 6%, to 3.7 million viewers. Fox, UPN and the WB generally appeal disproportionately well to teens and adults age 18 to 34 relative to the better-established networks, the demographics traditionally less likely to tune in the Olympics. (The WB is partly owned by Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.)