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Sweeps Finale

CBS ended February sweeps running repeats of some of its top-performing shows. The network decided to save fresh episodes of CSI, CSI: Miami and Everybody Loves Raymond until later in the season, betting Fox would place first no matter what the network aired against it.

“This was a sweeps we were never going to win,” says CBS EVP Kelly Kahl. “We didn't have a chance, and we knew that a year ago.”

CBS, like ABC and NBC, assumed it would be impossible to beat Fox, which has both the top-rated series on television, American Idol, and the Super Bowl, among the most successful broadcasts each year.

CBS was right. Per preliminary data released March 3, Fox won with a 6.5 rating among 18-49s, a record for any sweeps period. (Fox started distributing programming in April 1987.)

The battle among ABC, CBS and NBC was much closer. ABC ranked second with a 4.1 average rating, followed by CBS with a 3.8 rating, then NBC, with a 3.6. The two youngest networks were far behind: The WB and UPN pulled a 1.4 each.

This is the first time NBC placed last in a sweeps period since national people meters were introduced in 1987. Just a year ago, NBC claimed first prize in the February race, thanks to Friends and Frasier.

Typically, network spin machines were working overtime as sweeps closed. Whatever the rankings, each of the Big Four found a positive take on its performance.

NBC bragged in a press release that “potent ratings” for Medium, ER, Law & Order: SVU, The Apprentice and Las Vegas kept the network “competitive” among adults 18-49 during sweeps.

To sweeten the comparisons, NBC researchers calculated how Fox, ABC and CBS would have performed if they had relied solely on “regular programming.” That is, if they didn't include ratings from the Super Bowl and the Oscars.

“They're almost like false numbers,” says ad consultant Tom DeCabia, president of TSD Marketing. “Advertisers don't watch the sweeps that closely anymore.” But they do remain relevant for local stations, which use sweeps data to set ad rates.

Here is a look at some lessons learned from the February sweeps:

1. Take chances. ABC is back. A year ago, it placed last in the February sweeps; now it is No. 2. Desperate Housewives and Lost brought viewers back to the network, and many are sticking around for the rest of its lineup, including Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Boston Legal and Wife Swap.

2. Never underestimate American Idol. Its ratings are as strong as ever in its fourth season. And the show is a platform for promoting new programs for Fox. Ratings for medical drama House, which follows Idol, have soared since the mega-hit's return in January.

3. The pecking order is fluid. It may shift over the next three months. “I don't rule anybody out of an 18 to 49 win,” says CBS' Kahl. Even laggard NBC has a shot if The Contender, Mark Burnett's new reality show, beats expectations and pulls in Idol-like ratings. Says ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson, “There is a lot of TV that will be on from now through the end of the season.”