Fox set to retain key adults 18-49 crown

With just two nights of ratings data to come for the 2005-06 TV season, Fox pulled ahead of ABC for a second annual win in the advertiser-friendly adults 18-49 demo, while CBS prepared to take its fourth consecutive victory lap in total viewers.

Despite monster finales for Desperate Housewives and a two-part Grey's Anatomy, it was reliable soldier 24 that edged Fox past ABC on Monday night for first place season-to-date in the demographic. And that's without the network's American Idol finale, set to air Wednesday night, the final night of the season.

Fox held a 4.1 rating/11 share in the adults 18-49 demographic compared with ABC's 4.0/11, CBS's 3.8/10, and NBC's 3.3/9, according to data released late Monday by Nielsen Media Research. CBS had a commanding lead in viewership, with 12.6 million viewers season-to-date compared with ABC's 10.8 million, Fox's 9.9 million, and NBC's 9.7 million.

It was an impressive win for Fox, which unlike last season didn't have a major boost from postseason baseball and the Super Bowl. Instead, it was a come-from-behind victory worthy of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Last week marked the 13th week in a row that a broadcast network has been tops in adults 18-49, the first time in a season since NBC did it in 1997. And with an all-but-certain big win with Idol, Fox would set the record with 14 weeks in a row.

Fox's story is boosted by not only another big year of Idol--up 12 percent in the demo year-over-year and up 14 percent in viewership--but also great years from 24, Unanimous, Prison Break and, especially, House. Fox's adult 18-49 ratings are up 14 percent from 3.6/10 last season to this season's 4.1/11 and 14 percent in total viewers from 8.5 million last year to 9.7 million this year.

Meanwhile, CBS will rack up another big win in total viewers--its fourth in a row--and the adults 25-54 demographic, its third in a row. As CEO Leslie Moonves stressed at the network's "upfront" presentation to advertisers last week in New York, CBS's gains were on the strength of its popular and stable schedule. It won seven time periods in adults 18-49, more than any other network, as well as 12 time-period winning programs in viewership.

Key to CBS's success were such returning favorites as the CSI franchise, Survivor, and Two and a Half Men, as well as such new shows as The Unit and Criminal Minds. And that's in addition to losing TV's biggest sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, last season.

ABC showed increases in both viewership (up 7 percent) and adults 18-49 (up 8 percent) year-over-year. It's also the best performance for the network in both measures since the 2000-01 season. That included another year of performers Desperate Housewives and Lost, plus a breakout year for Grey's, which experienced a turbocharge after taking the coveted slot after the Super Bowl. And, as ABC was quick to point out last week, it also became the top network among viewers with household incomes over $100,000.

NBC was having another less-than-stellar year, remaining in fourth place in the demo. But it, too, had some higher points, including the success of My Name Is Earl and the midseason hit gameshow Deal or No Deal. Earl is prime-time's second-ranked comedy in adults 18-49 and has helped The Office (which follows it on Thursday night) grow from a 2.5 demo rating last year to a 4.0 this year.

Deal boosted NBC's fortunes immensely in its three-night-a-week run. Increases in the demo were 66 percent for Monday, 92 percent for Wednesday, and 75 percent for Friday compared with a year ago.

Last week--the last full week of the May sweeps--belonged to Fox (11 million, 4.6/13) in adults 18-49 and CBS (12 million, 3.5/10) in total viewers. ABC (10.5 million, 4.0/11) had a strong week of finales and near-finales, while NBC (9.6 million, 3.3/9) went with Deal and the Will & Grace finale. Univision (3.3 million, 1.4/4) outperformed the remaining networks including UPN (2.7 million, 1.1/3), WB Network (2.3 million, 0.9/3), and Telemundo (800,000, 0.3/1).

Both ABC and Fox tied for the most number of shows in the top 10 (three) in the demographic, while CBS and NBC both had two. Tuesday's Idol (28.3 million, 11.0/30) and Wednesday's Idol (27.7 million, 10.7/25) dominated. ABC's two hit dramas, Sunday's Housewives finale (24.2 million, 9.9/23) and Monday's second of a two-part Grey's finale (22.5 million, 9.9/22) tied for the lead in the demo. Fox's House (22.4 million, 9.0/22) rounded out the top five in adults 18-49, according to Nielsen. House is up 38 percent in the demo compared with the same period last year.

Meanwhile, the CSI finale (25.4 million, 8.3/20) was the week's most-viewed drama, though it was defeated in the demo by the Will & Grace finale (18.4 million, 8.4/21). Rounding out the top 10 in the demo were ER (16.6 million, 7.1/19), Lost (14.7 million, 6.1/14), and Without a Trace (19.8 million, 6.0/16).

NBC's prime-time schedule had some good news last week, increasing 9 percent in viewership and 10 percent in the demo compared with a year ago. That was in part because of the Will & Grace finale, which was the show's highest rating in more than two years. A retrospective an hour earlier gave NBC the highest numbers in the demo since January 2005.

ER also performed well, giving its highest rating of the season. And the season finale of Law & Order was the show's highest rating in the demo since September 28.

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