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Despite Sinking Ratings, NBC Will Keep XFL in Prime Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

NBC remains committed to two full seasons of the start-up XFL football league, despite a ratings free fall that would almost certainly prompt cancellation of any other prime-time program--one that has taken a toll on the network’s results for the February rating sweeps.

The made-for-TV league, a partnership of NBC and the World Wrestling Federation, got off to a splashy start with its heavily promoted Feb. 3 debut but has since seen its audience plummet 75%, from 15.7 million viewers for the first game to 3.9 million watching the most recent telecast Saturday.

Ratings for the latest game fell to a near-record prime-time low for one of the three elder networks, and those subpar numbers--below NBC’s conservative preseason estimates--have diminished the network’s average during sweeps, which conclude tonight.

Based on Nielsen Media Research data, NBC will still rank first for the sweeps among adults ages 18 to 49--the demographic most important to advertisers--edging Fox by a narrow margin. The network currently trails CBS, however, in terms of total audience, putting it in a virtual tie with ABC despite a significant drop in that network’s viewership versus February 2000, thanks to declining ratings for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Programmers try to boost viewing during sweeps to help local stations, which use results from those months to negotiate ad rates.

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Although moving the XFL out of prime time could mitigate the damage, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa indicated that NBC is locked into playing the games in prime time.

“All of us are disappointed with where the numbers have settled,” Sassa acknowledged during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, adding that the hope is the league can right itself and “find that appetite that’s out there [for post-NFL football] based on the first numbers.”


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