Its ABC by a mile

The final Nielsen answer of the 1999-2000 season is ABC. The Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? network rode the popular game show to its first full-season ratings victory in five years and a clean sweep in all three sweeps ratings periods.

ABC dominated in nearly every ratings category for the year-including adults 18-49, kids, teens, total viewers and households. It was the first time ABC has won all three sweeps periods (November, February and May) in total viewers since the 1978-79 season, and the Disney-owned network ended the year winning the final 21 weeks in total viewers-its longest winning streak ever.

"This is beyond our wildest dreams," said ABC Entertainment Group Co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg. "But I think it's fantastic that Millionaire could come on, perform as well as it did and then shine a big bright spotlight on all of our other series that were already performing well.

"And what's also amazing, [is] that for the first time since they have been recording demographics in the history of television, a network moved up from being No. 3 to No. 1 in one season. We're very proud of that."

ABC and NBC executives did sweat out the final few days of the May sweeps, as the two networks battled it out for sweeps supremacy in the adults 18-49 race.

The contest for the advertiser-desired demographic went down to the final night (May 24), as ABC aired the final episode of Spin City with Michael J. FOX and a special episode of a championship Millionaire. NBC countered with a repeat of the one-hour season finale of Friends and two hours of Law & Order, including the show's dramatic season finale. The final tally-ABC and NBC ended May tied with a 5.5 rating/16 share in adults 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research.

NBC executives, in a conference call with reporters, were calling that a victory. ABC topped NBC in November with a 0.5 margin of victory in adults 18-49 and in February with a 0.4 margin and now ended in a dead heat in May.

"We are just extremely pleased to be where we are," said NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa. "The encouraging news is that good story programming, good series programming can actually be successful."

But everything else seemed to go ABC's way. ABC was the only Big Four network to make year-to-year gains in all major demographic and ratings categories, climbing 20% in total viewers (to 14.2 million), 17% in adults 18-49 (5.5 rating) and 18% in adults 18-34 (4.6).

Three episodes of Millionaire finished in the top six spots for the season among adults 18-49. The Tuesday and Sunday episodes tied for fourth, and the Thursday-night version of Millionaire finished the year sixth among all prime time shows in the key adults 18-49 demographic.

Five other ABC series finished in the top 20 for the season in adults 18-49, including The Practice (No. 13), Drew Carey (No. 14) and Dharma & Greg (No. 15).

And in May, ABC swept every ratings category with the exception of adults 18-49, handily winning the total viewers and household crowns. According to researchers at network rivals, Millionaire represented 19% of ABC's May sweeps schedule, up from 18% in February and 17% in November. And for the first time, ABC used two special stunt versions of its Regis Philbin-hosted game show: a celebrity version that broke numerous records at the outset of the month and a champions version to close the sweeps.

The other networks had a few good stories to tell, especially UPN-which rode its own version of Millionaire (this one called WWF Smackdown!) to eye-popping gains.