How Fall Played Out

How times and CBS have changed. In 1980, the last time CBS could claim a November sweeps victory in the 18-49 demo, it was a demo class advertisers didn’t even care about.

To give some historical perspective, CBS was helped back then by the “Who Shot J.R.” Dallas episode, which weighed in with a 53.3 Nielsen household rating and 83 million viewers, still the second-highest numbers for any TV show. (This season, the top-rated show, a CSI episode, attracted 31.5 million viewers.

So when CBS won the 18-49 November-sweeps crown from NBC last week, it wasn’t just a victory. It was a jarring milestone. And the race wasn’t even all that close. CBS pulled a 4.5 rating/12 share among 18-49s. Next came ABC at 4.0/11 and NBC with 4.0/10. Fox was fourth with 3.0/8, followed by The WB with 1.6/4 and UPN with 1.5/4.

Les Moonves, Viacom’s new co-president and co-COO and the mastermind of the CBS comeback, was crowing about a new era for the network. Could be. Indeed, CBS can now get young viewers even when it’s not trying: Last week, when CBS aired Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, its 18-34 ratings were up 34% from a year ago—and it has been on every holiday season for 40 years. Go figure.

“With this significant a change for us, there will definitely be more money coming into us in May,” says Moonves. “These ratings are absolutely going to translate into dollars, especially on Thursday night.”

Meantime, new NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly was contrite after taking his first pasting. “I can’t say we like being beat,” he said in a conference call, noting that it will be tough for NBC to make a Thursday-night comeback before the end of the 2004-05 season. That’s a night NBC used to own.

NBC’s average sweeps audience was down 9% from last year among 18-49s. That was the biggest drop of any of the Big Six broadcast networks. CBS gained 7%, ABC gained 8%. Fox fell 3%; UPN was down 6% and The WB was unchanged.

Reilly is pinning NBC’s hopes on four shows slated to debut before February. There are two sitcoms: The Office, the highly touted U.S. version of British hit, and Committed, about a neurotic New York couple who fall in love.

Also, NBC is airing one drama and a reality show: A psychic crime solver is the hero of Medium, and gorgeous women compete for a photo shoot and a modeling contract on The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search.

How November fared day by day:

Monday: Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, and CSI: Miami kept CBS on top with a 6.1 rating (up 11% from last year). NBC plunged 19% as Fear Factor lost steam.

Tuesday: The Biggest Loser and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit helped NBC win this night with a 4.6 rating, but CBS is 0.1 behind, thanks to The Amazing Race 6. Fox is the big loser with ratings down 34%. Blame Rebel Billionaire.

Wednesday: ABC’s Lost is an amazing find, putting ABC on top with a 4.8 rating. The biggest gainer of the night is UPN, up 36% at 1.9, due to America’s Next Top Model and Kevin Hill.

Thursday: What happens when Joey, Will, Grace, The Donald and the entire cast of ER face off against Survivor, CSI, and Without a Trace? NBC loses. Final 18-49 score: CBS, 8.1, NBC, 6.7.

Friday: NBC wins with a 2.9 rating, helped by Medical Investigation. ABC’s sitcom-heavy shows fell, dropping from a 3.0 to 2.5 rating.

Saturday: Fox’s 3.1, with Cops and America’s Most Wanted, still rules.

Sunday: Desperate Housewives makes for a happy Sunday drive down Wisteria Lane giving ABC a 6.6 rating for the night. That’s up 89% from a year ago. NBC is last among the Big Four, with a 3.5 rating.—with P.J. Bednarski