CBS, NBC Tops while Fox Rocks
Overall, the networks attracted just 3% fewer viewers than last season -- and that decline is largely attributable to ABC, which dropped 12% from its Regis Philbin-inflated numbers of a year ago.
With the 2000-01 television season now history, CBS is the most-watched network, NBC has regained its demo crown -- and a resurgent Fox gets the prize for comeback of the year.
Powered by the hottest reality series ("Survivor: The Australian Outback") and the most popular new drama ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"), CBS bumped off ABC in the race for eyeballs -- though it came down to the last week of the season. In the end, final Nielsen data show CBS with 12.53 million viewers (up 1%) vs. 12.51 million for ABC (down 12%). NBC and Fox again ranked third and fourth respectively.
Among the two fledgling networks, WB was once again back on a growth track, regaining fifth place and pushing UPN back into the ratings basement. The WB finished first among one of its target audiences, female teens.
In the category advertisers value most when looking at the four major networks -- adults 18-49 -- the webs were as closely bunched as ever, with less than a ratings point separating them. Overall, the networks are still contending with some of their lowest numbers in history. Though the rate of decline has slowed, ABC and NBC posted their weakest adults 18-49 ratings yet. In total viewers, NBC averaged its worst numbers ever, while CBS managed its second-worst and ABC, its third-worst.
NBC returned to first place, even though its 4.8 rating/13 share in the demo was down 4% vs. last season. ABC -- last year's demo leader -- tumbled 20% to third (4.4/12), while CBS stayed in fourth (4.0/11) but increased its demo rating by 8% to close the gap.
The surprise of the season, however, may be Fox. Written off for dead 18 months ago, the network gained 7% to finish second in adults 18-49 (4.5/12) for only the third time in its history -- coming closer to first place than ever before. Fox also ranked first in adults 18-34 for the third consecutive season. (Each adults 18-49 rating point represents 1.24 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total.)
"We had our most competitive season ever," Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow said. "We truly believe that in spite of all the noise that the other networks are making, the real story is the emergence of Fox as a real player and contender for primetime leadership."
Credit for Fox's performance goes to continued strong Saturday and Sunday schedules, a Monday lineup boosted by the addition of drama "Boston Public" and Tuesday sitcom successes "That '70s Show" and "Titus." Midseason monster "Temptation Island" helped pump up Fox's Wednesday numbers by 15%.
Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman added that the network's goal "is to be the No. 1 network next year in adults 18-49."
Over at CBS, network president Leslie Moonves said his company "is clearly in the best competitive position we've been in for many years. Everyone is beaming here."
While "Survivor" remained CBS' "golden goose," as Moonves put it, CBS has several other reasons to smile. Crime drama "CSI," paired with "Survivor," helped CBS turn around Thursday night, cutting into NBC's dominance. New drama "The District" seamlessly replaced "Walker, Texas Ranger" Saturdays at 10, while rookie comedy "Yes, Dear" helped solidify the CBS Monday night comedy block.
For NBC, the season was one of transition. Jeff Zucker replaced Garth Ancier as entertainment president; network president Bob Wright bumped himself upstairs into the chairman's office and named news chief Andy Lack his replacement; and the network's once iron-clad grip on Thursdays loosened. Despite the changes, NBC averted the disaster many had predicted -- and managed to end up first in the category that counts.
"A lot of people at the beginning of the season and even midway through the season didn't think we'd finish in first place," Zucker said. "It's a testament to the power of these shows."
"ER" remains NBC's Thursday powerhouse, and "Friends" is still strong. The network's hidden weapon: "Law & Order," which in its 11th season somehow scored its best ratings ever.
Meanwhile, WB execs were croaking again after a disappointing 1999-2000 season.
"We've been the growth story in network TV," WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin said. "I think the story for us is we're back. We're up every single night we're on. It's not a one-night story."
Although the WB still has a way to go before it returns to the levels it enjoyed in 1998-99, WB execs say it is back on track. The WB led all networks in growth in many of the major measurements -- including adults 18-49 and adults 18-34.
As for UPN, the network has settled back down after taking a "WWF Smackdown!"-fueled leap a year before. Without a breakout success this season, and with wrestling mania diminishing, UPN held relatively steady. Acquisitions such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Enterprise" might goose those numbers next year.
ABC execs conceded they don't have much to brag about this season, which saw the network struggle to get off the ratings heroin known as "Who Wants to Be a Milllionaire."
As with any drug, the Regis tonic was unable to sustain its initial buzz, and the resulting tumble helped make ABC the first network ever to fall from first to third in adults 18-49 in a single season. Indeed, ABC declined on every night of the week.
Still, ABC's finish in the demo this season simply puts the network back where it was in the demo before Regis: third. And there were a few bright spots for the network, particularly in the longform arena. ABC once again had the most-watched TV movie ("Oprah Winfrey Presents: Amy & Isabelle") and miniseries ("Life with Judy Garland.")
"Last year we were riding the incredible, phenomenal 'Millionaire' and its halo effect," co-chairman Lloyd Braun said. "This year, 'Millionaire' is not the ratings phenomenon it was, and our performance reflects that."
But Braun is encouraged by ABC's midseason success with comedies like "My Wife and Kids," and believes the overall network race for next season is up for grabs.
"This is probably the most competitive season that we've all seen," Braun said. "It's never been more true that we're all one big hit away from being No. 1."