As May Sweeps Near, Networks in Closest Race Ever

As the TV season winds down, the Big 4 network horse race has never been tighter.

Some neck-and-neck finishes will not even be decided until the final days of May sweeps, which begins Thursday night.

It's unusual for so many of the key races to be up for grabs at this point, but it underscores the competitive landscape of primetime this season. Nervous network executives can partly blame their sweaty palms on the reality TV explosion, which continues to shake up the order of things in a hurry.

Consider this season's game-changers:

- "Survivor" has made CBS a demo leader on Thursday nights, while boosting the network's season-to-date numbers among young adults substantially.

- The XFL's dismal Saturday night numbers managed to neutralize NBC's usual dominance with young eyeballs, although "Weakest Link" has given the network enough steam to keep on top.

- "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's" erosion with young viewers has brought ABC back down to earth, making the network's amazing performance last season a distant memory.

- Despite not showing up on Thursdays, Fox has stayed in the game, thanks partly to the midseason reality hits "Temptation Island" and "Boot Camp."

Up for grabs are the two biggest prizes -- the advertiser-important adults 18-49 crown and the bragging-rights title of most-watched network. Both titles are far from locked; the adults 18-49 race is especially tight, with all four major networks expected to finish within about half a ratings point of each other. (Each adults 18-49 rating point this season represents 1.24 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total.)

That makes this by far the most competitive season on record. As recently as three years ago, 2.4 ratings points separated winner NBC and fourth-place CBS.

"It's just a reflection of where TV is," said Mitch Metcalf, senior vice president of program planning and scheduling at NBC. "When we're all slugging it out at this 4 and 5 rating level, it's naturally going to get tighter."

NBC is the favorite to win the month in adults 18-49 and thus close out the season as champ, but Fox and ABC have a long-shot chance of catching it. Heading into the four-week sweeps period (April 26-May 23), NBC leads in the demo with a 4.7 to Fox and ABC's 4.5.

Despite the presumed seasonlong victory, though, NBC's winning 18-49 rating (a projected 4.8) will be its lowest ever and the weakest on record for a victorious network. Fox is looking for its third second-place finish in three years while ABC is trying to avoid becoming the first network ever to slip from first to third in one season.

Fourth-place CBS is the only network without a shot at winning the season in adults 18-49, but it will finish with a 4-plus demo rating for the first time in three years and land closer to the leader (about half a ratings point) than it has in any year since the 1991-92 season.

ABC, last year's winner in both total viewers and adults 18-49, will fall to record lows in all key adult demos but will post its second largest overall audience in four years -- thanks to "Millionaire" and its many 50-plus viewers.

ABC will enter the sweep with a lead of roughly 220,000 total viewers over second-place CBS, with the finish likely to be the closest since 30,000 viewers separated winner NBC and runner-up ABC in the 1990-91 season.

CBS' two-hour finale of "Survivor: The Australian Outback" on May 3 is expected to make it a close finish, although five celebrity editions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" will give ABC a mid-sweep jolt. In fact, it could come down to how well high-profile miniseries "Blonde" (CBS) and "Anne Frank" (ABC) fare over the final two weeks.

NBC, meanwhile, looks to reclaim the Thursday crown and cement an adults 18-to-49 victory with the "Friends" wedding on May 17.

Other key battlegrounds include Sunday, May 13, when "Blonde" faces off with the season finale of ABC's "The Practice" and an NBC "Saturday Night Love" Mother's Day-themed special.

The following Sunday, May 20, Fox airs the season finale of "The X-Files" opposite "Anne Frank" and the CBS true-crime tale "Like Mother, Like Son," starring Mary Tyler Moore.

On Tuesday, May 22, NBC's one-hour series finale of "3rd Rock From the Sun" competes with the WB finale (and 100th episode) of UPN-bound "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," while the final night of sweeps, Wednesday, May 23, features a faceoff between the finale of Fox's "Boot Camp," the season finales of ABC's "Drew Carey" and "Spin City" and series wrap of UPN's "Star Trek: Voyager."

Series finales of note are CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger" (May 12, after nine seasons), NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun" (May 22, after five seasons) and UPN's "Star Trek: Voyager" (May 23, after six seasons).

As for the fledgling networks, UPN and the WB enter the sweep in a virtual tie in both adults 18-49 and total viewers. The WB has already clinched the titles that matter most to both webs, though: adults 18-34 and teens.

UPN has been on the WB's tail all season in total viewers but will find it tough to leap over the WB in the closing weeks, especially since the Testosterone net's new reality series "Chains of Love" got off to a slow start last week.