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Fox, NBC in Tight Sweeps Battle

NBC is scrambling to keep up as Fox's reality juggernauts threaten to sweep the February sweeps. At the end of the first week, Fox was narrowly ahead in adults 18-49, with a 5.2 rating/13 share to NBC's 5.1/13. Fox is dominant in adults 18-34, with a 5.5/16. Fox's closest competitor in the demographic is NBC with a 4.3/13.

Spreading the wealth a little bit, CBS and NBC were tied in households at 8.5/13, while NBC led CBS in viewers by about 60,000.

Last year at this time, NBC was getting ready to air the Olympics, and Fox was coming off the Super Bowl. This year, with the playing field more even, NBC faces the possibility of losing its first February sweeps in three years, its first out of the past 11 sweeps.

Curiously, although both NBC and Fox are paddling furiously to take the 18-49 demo, neither wants to be pre-declared the victor, and so each is working hard to underplay its position. NBC executives were conceding the 18-49 victory to Fox as early as the day after sweeps began, while Fox was telling reporters that it expects American Idol's ratings to settle down until the show gets to the final ten performers.

To try to blunt Fox's sudden strength, NBC is moving around several of its programs. It's also bringing out its own reality big-guns to attract some 18-49 viewers to NBC at night. On Feb. 25, NBC will premiere a new version of summer reality hit Dog Eat Dog
at 8 p.m., bumping underperforming comedies Just Shoot Me
and The In-Laws.

Although NBC says the launch had already been scheduled, any 18-49 jump on Tuesdays from 8 to 9 p.m. ET will be good news as Fox's American Idol
gathers steam. In Dog Eat Dog, six contestants compete in contests of brain and brawn and with either split $25,000 amongst five of them or see one contestant keep it all. Last summer, new episodes of Dog Eat Dog
were the third-highest-rated of all shows in adults 18-49, behind only American Idol
and the American Idol
results show.

NBC will premiere Dog Eat Dog
at 10 p.m. ET on Monday, Feb. 23, behind a two-hour edition of Fear Factor. From NBC's perspective, with any luck, Fear Factor
will help soften the blow of CBS's premiere of My Big Fat Greek Life
at 9:30 p.m. on that night, right after Everybody Loves Raymond.

NBC will further try to shore up its weak Tuesday time periods by airing Outrageous Game Show Moments
on Feb. 11 and Feb. 18, both against American Idol.

In other areas, NBC last Thursday pulled both its 8:30 p.m. ET sitcom Scrubs
and 9:30 p.m. sitcom Good Morning, Miami, replacing them with repeats of two of NBC's strongest 18-49 performers, category-topper Friends
and Will & Grace, in an effort to retain greater numbers.

On Feb. 6, without CBS's Survivor
to steal 8:30 p.m. viewers, NBC had a good shot at scoring sky-high numbers in that slot. NBC will need them, though, because Joe Millionaire
and American Idol
give Fox 21/2 hours of extremely strong 18-49 programming on the schedule. (Survivor: The Amazon, the sixth iteration of the series, starts on Thursday.)

Fox's scripted shows are getting a boost from the strong performance of its two reality shows. Thriller 24
did its second-best numbers ever last week, hitting a 6.3/15 in adults 18-49. Fastlane, moved to Fridays at 9 p.m. ET, also has gotten a ratings jolt, ticking up to a 3.2/10 in 18-49 on Friday, Jan. 31, 23% over its average.

Fox's ace in the hole this sweeps is likely to be the two-hour finale of Joe Millionaire
next Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. ET. With the show averaging a 10.2/23 so far, the finale promises to score huge numbers.

Although Fox has been clear from the beginning that it doesn't think it can repeat Joe Millionaire, it has come up with ways to stretch out the ratings hit. With an interview with the parents of Joe Millionaire
star Evan Marriott, Fox's reborn newsmagazine The Pulse
scored well on Thursday, Jan. 31. And on Monday, Feb. 24 at 9 p.m. ET, Fox will air Joe Millionaire: The Aftermath, looking at how Marriott's life has changed since the show. That time slot should be a real ratings battle, with Fear Factor
on NBC and Raymond
and Greek Life
on CBS.

With NBC and Fox in a tight race for first, CBS and ABC are battling for third.

At the end of the first week, ABC was in the lead there, 3.7/10 vs. CBS's 3.6/9. ABC is hoping its 15 straight days of I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!
will push its 18-49 numbers past CBS's. The show starts Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. ET, the spot now occupied by Celebrity Mole Hawaii, although it moves all over the schedule through its two-week run.

ABC will likely get big 18-49 numbers with the two-hour season finale of The Bachelorette
on Wednesday, Feb. 19 from 8 to 10 p.m. ET. The net has some other 18-49 possibilities in its pocket with Celebrity Mole
finishing up on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 10 p.m., preceded by one-hour special The Bachelors Tell All
at 9 p.m. Last Thursday's 20/20
special on Michael Jackson also was expected to be a ratings winner prior to press time on Thursday.

On Thursday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m. ET, Are You Hot?
premieres against tough competition in Survivor
and Friends. Still, it's likely to do better than anything ABC has had in that time period so far this year.

Finally, although The WB doesn't play in the 18-49 race, the network is having as good a sweeps as it is a season, particularly on Tuesday. Smallville
at 9 p.m. ET set a new all-time record for The WB in the key adults 18-34 demo with a 5.7/14. It also scored the net's second-highest rating in women 18-34 with a 6.1/15. And even against American Idol, a new episode of Gilmore Girls
gave The WB second place in women 18-34 and women 12-34.