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ABC finds its 'sweeps' success

November 30, 2005|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

Once a ratings doormat, ABC is in the running to win its first "sweeps" period in nearly six years.

Which just goes to show the good a pregnant man can do.

ABC and CBS are battling to the wire for crucial young-adult viewers, and TV executives say the race is too close to call for the monthlong sweeps, which end tonight. But there's no doubt that, in addition to "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," ABC has been helped by "Grey's Anatomy," a quirky medical drama that has turned into one of network TV's biggest hits.

Viewers have clearly grown partial to the interns at Seattle Grace Hospital and their frequently wacky patients, including the man who turned up in an episode this month claiming to be expecting (his abdominal growth turned out to be a rare tumor).

"Creatively, it's getting stronger and stronger," ABC prime-time entertainment chief Steve McPherson said in an interview this week.

The same could be said of ABC's overall schedule, which over the last year has risen from the ashes to threaten CBS, which is still riding high from the success of such hits as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and the "Survivor" franchise, along with promising newcomers such as the profiler drama "Criminal Minds."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
ABC ratings -- An article in Wednesday's Calendar section said ABC had not won a ratings "sweeps" period since February 2000, when it tied CBS in the 18-to-49 age group. In fact, the month was May 2000, and it was NBC with which ABC tied.

Through Monday night, CBS was leading ABC among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old viewer demographic by a sliver-thin one-tenth of a rating point, with many analysts and executives expecting ABC to eke out a tie by the time the dust settles Thursday morning.

Even if the Walt Disney Co.-owned network has to settle for a close second, that would count as an astonishing turnaround. ABC, which is up 8% among young adults compared with a year ago, while CBS is flat, has not won a sweep period since February 2000, when it tied CBS thanks to the game-show sensation "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Since then, ABC has been in what a losing football coach would inevitably dub "a rebuilding phase."

NBC, meanwhile, the onetime king of the young adult "demo," has seen its ratings tumble 18% compared with last year and will likely tie with Fox for third place. Among total viewers in the prime-time sweeps, CBS has a commanding lead (14.6 million nightly primetime average), trailed by ABC (11.4 million), NBC (9.2 million) and Fox (7.6 million), according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

The reversal of fortunes at ABC and NBC has taken even some analysts by surprise. Although NBC has mostly kept its focus on affluent young-adult viewers, its audience is aging (and getting smaller) as new series such as "E-Ring" and "Surface" have fizzled and older series like "ER" steadily lose momentum. The new comedy "My Name Is Earl" is a bright spot, although it's considered a modest success rather than a standout hit.

"Who could have said that NBC would be a noncontender for [ages] 18-49 in the November sweep?" said Shari Anne Brill, an analyst for the ad firm Carat USA in New York.

The results are particularly illuminating because, for the most part, networks relied on their regularly scheduled series rather than loading up on the stunts and specials that often dominate sweep periods -- and that can obscure networks' real strengths and weaknesses. "It doesn't feel like everybody's bringing out their heavy artillery," Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman said.

The relative quiet prevails partly because some major TV markets, including Los Angeles, are now using local "people meters" from Nielsen, which can offer more detailed audience data and which many experts believe will eventually spell the extinction of sweeps, which local stations use to set ad rates. Also, as CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl noted, there have been relatively fewer new series than normal that failed right away this fall, leaving fewer open slots for specials.

For example, the drama "Prison Break" delivered better-than-expected numbers for Fox, and NBC ordered more episodes of "E-Ring" and "Surface," even though the series have not performed well. ABC's heavily publicized "Commander in Chief" has failed to catch on among younger viewers, although it's still hanging in on Tuesday nights. Fox's "Reunion," NBC's "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" and CBS' "Threshold," meanwhile, all count as major disappointments.

But another factor may be at play as well: The calm before the winter storm that is "American Idol."

Fox will bring back its gargantuan hit in January, although it has not announced exactly when or where it will reside on the schedule. Speculation about its ultimate whereabouts is dominating talk at the TV networks. In years past, "Idol" has dominated Tuesdays and much of Wednesdays, with some high-rated specials thrown in on Mondays as well. But there is speculation that Fox will shake things up by plopping the "Idol" "results show" on Thursdays, TV's most lucrative night, when Fox has never had much success building an audience.

The decision carries high stakes not just for Fox but for all its rivals as well.

If "Idol" moves to Thursdays, for example, NBC might well scotch a contemplated plan to move "Earl" to that night and try to begin rebuilding its "must-see" comedy block. And CBS would likely feel the heat on "Survivor" or "CSI," depending on exactly where "Idol" lands. But for now, Fox's rivals will have to squirm a bit longer, like the pregnant man in "Grey's Anatomy."

"We'll hopefully, sometime before 'Idol' comes on, announce our plans," Fox's Beckman said with a laugh.

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