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As Rating Sweeps Near End, ABC Feels Like ‘Millionaire’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rating sweeps are almost over. Let the spinning begin--for everyone, that is, except ABC.

So much has gone right for the top-rated network this season it perhaps restored a little cosmic balance to have technical glitches cut short a conference call with reporters Tuesday to detail its victories in both the September-through-May TV season as well as this month’s rating sweeps, which conclude tonight.

Moreover, the aborted call was arranged through AT&T;, which provides the “phone a friend” lifeline on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"--the franchise, most pundits agree, which has hoisted ABC to the top of the ratings heap.

ABC officials could be heard just long enough to dispute the premise that “Millionaire” represents the beginning and end of its accomplishments this season. “Taking nothing away from ‘Millionaire’ . . . there are a lot of other shows that helped get us to this position,” said ABC Television Group Co-Chairman Lloyd Braun.

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The other networks, meanwhile, have intimated otherwise, suggesting that the quiz show--which has caused ABC’s prime-time audience to balloon more than 40% during the current sweeps compared to May 1999--has almost single-handedly changed prime time’s balance of power.

Competitors also continue to grasp at signs of “Millionaire’s” vulnerability, encouraged by two recent offerings--NBC’s “Frasier” season finale and CBS’ miniseries “Jesus"--that drew more viewers in head-to-head competition.

“People will watch this show if there’s nothing else on they want to watch,” said David Poltrack, CBS’ executive vice president of planning and research. “What can beat it is appointment television.”

Though ABC holds a commanding sweeps lead in overall viewing, there is some suspense left regarding supremacy among adults under 50--the age group that most closely translates to advertising rates--as NBC clings to a paper-thin advantage by that standard.

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NBC’s competitive standing is noteworthy given that ABC posted across-the-board wins in total viewing and key demographics during this season’s previous sweeps periods in November and February; however, NBC, CBS and Fox have all lost audience versus last May, while ABC’s results have soared, due principally to “Millionaire.”

The only other broadcast network to achieve year-to-year prime-time gains is UPN, thanks to the ratings hold of the wrestling show “WWF Smackdown!” Overall viewing of the major networks is essentially even with last year--a good sign, executives say, in light of past audience erosion as viewers fled to cable.

“At least it’s not a decline,” noted NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier.

Hoping to secure its demographic win, NBC hastily scheduled a rerun of last week’s season-ending “Friends” tonight at 8, directly opposite “Millionaire.”

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