The sweeps numbers are in -- let the spinning begin.
Days before the quarterly ratings battle officially even ended, both ABC and CBS issued news releases celebrating their triumphs. ABC touted its first-place finish in the highly desirable 18-to-49 age demographic, while CBS trumpeted its top-ranked 13.04 million overall viewers for the ratings period.
For ABC, the sweeps marked the first time in seven years it captured the coveted demographic during the November ratings period, which will help determine television advertising rates in medium and small markets across the country. Companies traditionally spend the bulk of their television advertising budgets courting the coveted block of potentially high-spending consumers.
ABC's winning numbers, however, still represented a roughly 7% drop in the same demographic compared with last year's November sweeps -- not terribly surprising, say observers, because of the network's loss of "Monday Night Football."
Nevertheless, ABC could still boast two of the top-rated series within the demographic -- its Thursday night medical drama "Grey's Anatomy" and its Sunday night comic soap "Desperate Housewives." Further, the network scored two of the highest-rated individual shows during sweeps with the final installments of "Dancing With the Stars." The penultimate episode drew 26.8 million total viewers, and the finale attracted 27.5 million.
"We're obviously very pleased," said Stephen McPherson, ABC entertainment president. "We took some big risks, especially by moving 'Grey's' from Sunday to Thursday, and they paid off."
But CBS also claimed victory -- its sixth consecutive November sweeps in total viewers. The network could thank its ratings juggernaut "CSI," which stood as the month's top scripted series with an average of 22.19 million viewers, just nipping "Desperate Housewives" at 22.18 million, and "Grey's Anatomy" at 21.29 million. However, CBS ended up with a 3.8 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic, which meant from its perspective a disappointing tie with a surging NBC.
As is becoming more common among all the networks during sweeps, CBS achieved its total viewer numbers without airing outlandish stunts or over-hyped specials, which not long ago used to typify the ratings period. CBS aired about 97% of its regularly scheduled series during November -- the most by any network in a sweep in more than a decade, said CBS officials.
"We're real happy," said Kelly Kahl, CBS scheduling chief. "It's a validation of our very strong, solid schedule. A lot of times stunts are born out of desperation to fill holes or trying to cover up a weak time period."
Though still important, sweeps aren't as crucial as they once were, especially in the 10 major television markets where recent technology enables networks to track daily viewership habits. However, outside those major cities, which include New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, viewers still keep diaries, and those results figure into ad rates in those smaller markets.
The diminished importance of sweeps has influenced how the networks schedule for the quarterly ratings periods. Now there tends to be a greater emphasis on original programming and midseason "finales," avoiding repeats, and eschewing stunt programming, according to Sam Armando, director of broadcast research for the media buying firm Starcom USA.
"November sweeps is really the time the networks put their best foot forward and try to deliver on the strategies they promised the advertisers," said Armando. "Years ago you'd get the old bait-and-switch -- they'd promise the world's greatest scripted drama in May, then you'd get the world's wackiest dog tricks in November."
ABC and CBS weren't the only networks that found sweep results to champion. NBC, which has boosted its numbers with this year's addition of pro football on Sunday nights, highlighted its 15% increase in the 18-to-49 demographic compared with last year's November sweeps. Its last-minute tie with CBS in the category certainly was good news for NBC.
"It's part of our rebuilding story; all the problems aren't solved by any means," said Mitch Metcalf, NBC's head of programming. "But we're moving in the right direction."
Even the CW -- the network formed from the old WB and UPN -- banged the drum for its strongest November sweeps performers such as "Veronica Mars" and "Gilmore Girls," which both do well with the network's target audience of female viewers in the 18-to-34 demographic.
"In most markets, we had an awful lot of people to move to find our shows," said Kahl, who in addition to his CBS programming duties holds a similar position with the CW. "Still, week by week, we're getting more people to the CW."
Fox, stinging over its public humiliation caused by its canceled O.J. Simpson "If I Did It" interview, seemed relieved the month was over. Simpson notwithstanding, the network has -- as it has for the last couple of years -- had another rough quarter. It ranked well behind the big three networks in overall viewers and in the 18-to-49 demographic.
But a new year is coming for Fox, and so are its smash hits "American Idol" and "24."
"We're in the same competitive situation we've found ourselves in the past two years. We're not happy about it, we're trying not to be, but that seems to be our lot," said Preston Beckman, Fox's scheduling chief. "But in spite of all the doom-and-gloomers, we're now entering the time of year where our ratings go up and our competitors' go down. We expect to be very competitive."