NBC Tipped to Hold Off Fox on Final Turn

Last year, the broadcast networks’ final sprint for the advertiser-desired 18-49 demographic title wasn’t much of a contest. This year, it’s a horserace. As the viewing year enters its final sweeps month in May, media buyers believe last year’s champion, NBC, will repeat. Barely.

With the start of the May sweeps this Thursday, NBC is expected to hold a slim ratings lead of 0.3 points over Fox in the 18-49 demo. The race—4.5 for NBC, 4.2 for Fox—is much closer than at the same point last year, when the gap was 1.2 points (5.3 for NBC, 4.1 for Fox). However, media buyers believe both networks have so many holes in their schedules that neither should predict a victory. And the more smoke-and-mirrors programming stunts that the two networks try in May, the less significant the results will be, buyers said.

“If Fox wins the 18-49 demo for the season, it would be a staggering achievement, considering it was in fourth place in November,” said Brad Adgate, svp of corporate research at Horizon Media. “But everyone will also know it was driven by two reality shows [American Idol and Joe Millionaire], which takes the luster off.”

“Without reality programming for the season, Fox’s 18-49 ratings would be down,” added Lyle Schwartz, managing partner, research and marketplace analysis at Mediaedge:cia. “Not all advertisers want to be in reality shows, so all this reality-show success may not help Fox that much.”

Some buyers feel the strength of multinight versions of American Idol could be enough to eke out a May sweeps win for Fox among 18-49s, but that NBC will hold off Fox for the season victory. “There’s just not much of a cultural phenomenon right now surrounding NBC’s must-see-TV, whereas the novel nature of American Idol still is captivating to viewers,” said John Rash, svp and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun.

Other buyers believe NBC also has problems that a victory with the 18-49 demo cannot hide. Said one: “The West Wing has been hurt by American Idol. Frasier has run out of steam. Their entire Tuesday night is wide open. Thursday night is no longer as dominant as it used to be. And while Fear Factor draws decent 18-49 numbers, it is certainly not a show the Peacock wants to hang its hat on.”

Shari Ann Brill, vp and director of programming for Carat USA, said, “Signature shows define a network, and many of NBC’s shows are becoming borderline.”

Still, as close as the race is, NBC does appear likely to hold off Fox for the season. “Fox would have to win the sweeps by an obscene amount to take the season,” said Brian Hughes, senior research analyst at Initiative Media.

Fox may have a wild card up its sleeve in Mr. Personality, its latest relationship show, hosted by Monica Lewinsky, which launches tonight and continues through the May sweeps. But even Fox executives are downplaying those odds. “No one around here is expecting to replicate Joe Millionaire’s numbers,” said Preston Beckman, svp of programming and scheduling.

NBC is doing whatever it takes to stay ahead. It will air two-hour specials of Fear Factor, the reality show that does well in the 18-49 demo. It is using guest stars to lure sweeps viewers (Madonna will appear this week on Will & Grace) and pulling some of its weaker shows—Boomtown, Good Morning, Miami and Scrubs will be absent through the entire sweeps period. Repeats of Will & Grace and a highlight show of the popular sitcom will fill those slots.

“I think it shows a certain lack of confidence in these shows, but they’ve been underperforming all season, so it’s not surprising,” said Initiative’s Hughes.

How well NBC does among 18-49s will also depend on the competition it gets on the night it used to own, Thursday, now a battleground with CBS. On May 15, for example, NBC will air one-hour season finales of Friends, ER and, again, Will & Grace. But those shows will have to compete against the season finales of the hit CBS dramas CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Without a Trace.

As for ABC, it is relying almost exclusively on The Bachelor to save it from greater cumulative ratings losses this season. It is moving the show’s series finale from its regular Wednesday night slot to Sunday, May 18, to avoid a head-to-head matchup with Fox’s two-hour finale of American Idol on the last day of the sweeps.