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What Will Fox's Sweeps Win Really Mean?

Fox's impending sweeps win in adults 18-49 will get a lot of publicity, but its impact will be on the rates Fox affiliates charge more than on what the Fox network can.

"If you are No. 1 or 2 in the market, you will be better off selling your advertising in the future," says John Tupper, chairman of Fox's affiliate board. "And although reality shows are not repeated, they do tend to come back, which allows advertisers and stations to predict what they are going to do."

Local stations use the four sweeps periods a year to determine their ad rates, but not the way they once did. For stations in Nielsen's 55 metered markets, ratings are more science than art, checked by meter and delivered practically by the minute. Those markets still use diaries during sweeps, which are used in the final rate books that come out later, but the meters do a good job of predicting the final results as early as the next morning.

All about stunts

For the 156 television markets that do not have meters, sweeps are important because their ratings are measured only by diary.

Strangely, though, the February sweeps have been all about reality stunts, most of which can't be duplicated, which would seem to make those fat ratings pointless from a selling standpoint.

Even so, although advertisers are unlikely to pay the exact same prices for ads in time slots that saw huge ratings during sweeps, such as Joe Millionaire's finale last Monday night (see page 14), media buyers use those ratings to predict what could happen with Fox's next reality show, Married by America. And stations use the ratings to sell advertising for the time slot, not for the particular show.

Stations also can use Joe Millionaire's ratings to predict how a future rendition of the show would do, and Fox executives are planning one. In the case of American Idol, ratings have been higher than predicted, meaning that stations probably charged less for advertising than they should have.

Because a rising tide lifts all ships, Joe Millionaire
and American Idol
are giving a boost to the rest of Fox's schedule, particularly Tuesday's 24. Last Tuesday, benefiting from Idol's lead-in, 24
did its highest numbers ever, hitting a 6.6 rating/16 share in adults 18-49 and bringing 13.6 million viewers to the network. Fox also is performing well on Sunday nights, with The Simpsons
leading Fox to victories in the 18-49 demo on that night throughout sweeps.

Lead-in payoffs

Having popular programming means that a network can promote its schedule to a broader audience, which helps bring more viewers to regularly scheduled scripted shows. Shows have bigger lead-ins, which means more viewers flowing through to other shows. For local stations, those lead-ins particularly pay off for local newscasts.

"It's always better to have a 40 share leading into your 10 p.m. newscast, which most of the Fox stations have," says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Television Group.

Finally, being able to brag about winning sweeps is sweet icing on a rich cake. "The article in The New York Times
doesn't talk about the ratings performance in Des Moines. It talks about the No. 1 network for the week," Carroll points out. "That's where the competition is. It's ultimately not about bragging rights for the February sweeps but for the full season."

The challenge for Fox, once it has officially won this sweeps, is what happens next. "Now I look to see if Fox can keep their audience," says Sam Armando, media director, television research, Starcom Worldwide. "I look to audiences in 2003 and 2004."

WB plays with the big boys

Fox isn't the only network with a good story to tell this sweeps. The WB has shown growth across its demographics, including a 24% increase in viewers compared with last year at this time, a 26% increase in persons 12-34, a 35% increase in adults 18-34 and a 25% increase in adults 18-49. Through three weeks of February sweeps, The WB is pacing with CBS in adults 18-34, trailing the much bigger network by only 0.2 ratings point and two share points.

CBS appears to have locked up the race in viewers, 13.14 million vs. NBC's 12.5 million. Fox is just behind NBC, with 12.32 million.

ABC has pulled out to a clear third place in adults 18-49, beating CBS 4.1/11 to 3.8/10, but CBS made up ground with the premiere of Survivor: The Amazon
on Thursday, Feb. 13.

UPN continues to struggle with low numbers but saw a bit of sunlight last week when Wednesday night's The Twilight Zone
turned in its biggest audience since October, with 3.3 million viewers and a 1.5/3 in adults 18-49. The episode featured two scenes originally penned by Rod Serling.