Fox gets swept away

The News Corp.-owned network finished in fourth in November sweeps. But with 'American Idol' returning next month, it could go from worst to first.

By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Fox is going to need a lot of help from the next Taylor Hicks if it hopes to win a key network ratings battle for the third year in a row.

According to preliminary data provided to the networks from ratings tracking firm Nielsen Media Research, CBS was the most watched network during the November sweeps period, with ABC finishing second, NBC third and News Corp (Charts).-owned Fox fourth.

heroes.03.jpg
The success of "Heroes" was key to a ratings revival at NBC in November...
ugly_betty.03.jpg
...and ABC's new hit "Ugly Betty" helped ABC claim the lead in the 18-49 year-old ratings race...
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...but many think Fox will wind up wining the ratings crown for a third consecutive year thanks to "American Idol," which returns in January.
FUN MONEY NEWSMAKERS
The Peacock has reason to be proud
NBC now finds itself in the thick of a competitive ratings race.
November sweeps averages (viewers in millions)
Network Adults 18-49 Total Viewers
ABC 5.3 11.6
CBS 5.0 13.0
NBC 4.9 10.5
Fox 3.9 7.4
CW 1.9 3.6
Source:Nielsen Media Research, NBC

Turning to the important ratings for the 18-49 year-old demographic, ABC won the month. CBS (Charts) and NBC finished in a tie for second place. Fox, once again, finished fourth.

The TV broadcasters and big marketers tend to pay closer attention to the 18-49 year old ratings figures, as opposed to total viewers, since this age segment is viewed as being the most lucrative for advertisers.

And sweeps periods, which also take place in February and May, are important since they incorporate a wider swath of markets than typical Nielsen ratings data, and are therefore relied on heavily by networks and advertisers when they negotiate advertising rates.

This fall, Fox has struggled, as most of its new shows failed to find a major audience. Returning hits "House" and "Prison Break" continued to do well in the ratings but new shows "Happy Hour," "Vanished" and "Justice" all bombed.

The network also suffered from some bad publicity when it scheduled a TV special with O.J. Simpson for the end of November, a move widely decried as a ratings sweeps stunt. News Corp. had planned on publishing a book by Simpson about the Nicole Simpson-Ron Goldman killings, but later relented and canceled both the book and TV special.

Still, Fox often finds itself going from worst to first after November. Fox tends to struggle in the fall since it broadcasts the baseball playoffs, which disrupt the network's schedule. And baseball ratings were hurt this year because the World Series featured two relatively small-market teams: the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers.

Fox also has two big guns returning to the schedule in January: "24" and "American Idol." The latter show has the potential to drastically shake up the entire prime-time ratings race since "American Idol" typically runs two nights a week.

Last year, the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of "American Idol" finished the season as the most watched shows on TV, both averaging around 30 million viewers. So can Fox rise from the dead again once its popular talent show comes back next month?

A different tune?

Several media buyers like Fox's chances.

"With 'American Idol' and '24' they certainly have a fighting chance to re-capture the 18-49 adult race. 'American Idol' is such a blockbuster for them and the buzz on '24' is better than ever," said Shari Anne Brill, vice president of programming Carat USA, a New York-based media buying firm.

"American Idol," heading into its sixth season, shows no signs of slowing down. So Fox can probably count on strong ratings from that show.

"Fox is a disappointment now but they always are a disappointment until 'Idol.' One of these years, if people ever get sick of 'Idol,' it will be interesting to see what happens to Fox. But 'American Idol' is still strong," said Gary Carr, senior vice president and director of national broadcast with TargetCast tcm, a media buying firm in New York.

But even if "Idol" remains a rating juggernaut, some think "24" could have a tougher time when it comes back, since it will be going head-to-head against NBC's biggest new hit, "Heroes," on Monday nights.

Brill said that she thinks the audience for "Heroes" and "24" are fairly similar, so both shows might see a slight dip in ratings.

Thanks largely to "Heroes" and "Sunday Night Football" telecasts, General Electric (Charts)-owned NBC had its best November sweeps in years. NBC reported a 10 percent increase in total viewers from a year ago and a 15 percent increase in 18-49 viewers.

That's great news for NBC. The network has finished in fourth place in the 18-49 market for the past two TV seasons and that has hurt the financial performance of GE's NBC Universal unit.

So "Heroes" may eat into some of the audience of "24," but NBC will face other challenges. Outside of "Heroes" it hasn't really had a major new hit.

And the NFL's regular football season comes to an end in December, which means that the network will have a huge hole to fill on Sunday nights.

Crossed up

What's more, NBC, without football, loses its best opportunity to cross-promote other shows on its schedule. Fox, on the other hand, gains a key way to tout other shows on its schedule with "American Idol."

"The end of football season and beginning of 'American Idol' season will make it challenging for NBC to maintain their gains. Fox will rebound in the first quarter," said John Rash, senior vice president and director of media negotiations with Campbell Mithun, a media buying firm based in Minneapolis. "It's a relatively competitive race, so Fox has a possibility of coming back and winning."

TargetCast's Carr agreed that NBC's ratings rebound is going to be tough to sustain.

"Football's not something you build on," he said. "They have it and it's doing well for NBC, but that's going to be gone in a month. Take football out and their ratings are not up as much. NBC is doing OK."

Looking at the other networks, it's mainly the status quo. The November sweeps news was clearly good news for Walt Disney's (Charts) ABC, which has enjoyed a ratings revival in recent years thanks to hit shows like "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives," "Lost," and "Dancing with the Stars."

But some expressed concern that other than "Ugly Betty" on Thursday nights, ABC hasn't had many breakout new hits, despite the fact that it launched the most new shows of any network.

CBS continues to lead the overall ratings race. But with shows like "CSI," "Criminal Minds" and "60 Minutes" that skew to a slightly older audience, it tends to not do as well in the 18-49 market. However, Carr thinks CBS could get a big boost this season since it will be broadcasting Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4.

ABC won the February sweeps period among 18-49 year olds last February, largely due to the fact that it aired Super Bowl XL, which was watched by an average of 90.7 million viewers in the U.S.

Finally, the new CW network, created by the merger of CBS' UPN and Time Warner's (Charts) WB, has continued to struggle. The CW finished in fifth place in the 18-34 year-old market, even though that's the main demographic that the network is targeting. (Time Warner also owns CNNMoney.com.)


The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) program. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.