Housewives, news nets ABC Sunday ratings win

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Desperate Housewives came roaring back to life for ABC on Sunday as its sophomore-season premiere drew more than 28 million viewers to a new round of adventures on Wisteria Lane.

Housewives couldn't quite top its first-season finale numbers last May, but it nonetheless reeled in an eye-popping 28.2 million and 12.1 rating/26 share in the adults 18-49 demographic at 9 p.m., according to preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research (compared to 30.3 million viewers and 13.2/31 in the key demo for the May 22 finale).

As was the case last season, ABC owned Sunday night overall. The network opened with a two-part, four-hanky episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which peaked at 8 p.m. with 16.3 million viewers and 6.8/16 in adults 18-49, and ended with a strong showing at 10 p.m. by the sophomore-season opener of medical drama Grey's Anatomy (19.5 million, 8.6/21).

Only Fox put up any kind of challenge. The Simpsons (10.2 million, 5.0/12) was a competitive No. 2 at 8 p.m. The network's new live-action domestic comedy The War at Home (8 million, 3.8/9) drooped at 8:30 p.m. but 9 p.m.'s Family Guy (9 million, 4.6/10) braved the Housewives challenge by posting its highest numbers of the season to date.

CBS' lineup was thrown off for the night by a 53-minute NFL overrun that pushed back the start of its primetime lineup by nearly an hour. Crime drama Cold Case suffered a weak turnout in its delayed bow at around 9 p.m., with about 11.5 million viewers. The network's Martha Behind Bars ripped-from-the-headlines Martha Stewart movie, starring Cybill Shepherd, was a big bust that appeared to draw less than 10 million viewers.

NBC felt its share of the sting from ABC's heat. The network ran a distant fourth for the night overall. The relocated West Wing (8.9 million, 2.4/6) didn't do much business in the 8 p.m. hour, though it did improve on its Dateline NBC (7.9 million, 1.4/4) lead-in. At 9 p.m., the fifth-season opener of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (10.3 million, 3.0/7) posted its lowest marks for a season-premiere episode. The only silver lining on the night for the network was Crossing Jordan (13.2 million, 3.7/9), managing a little growth spurt at 10 p.m.

All things considered, the WB Network didn't do too badly with 8 p.m.'s season premiere of Charmed (4 million, 1.8/4), but things went downhill at 9 p.m. with the second-season bow of Blue Collar TV (2.7 million, 1.1/2).

When all was said and done, ABC logged a commanding win of the first Sunday of the 2005-06 season with an average of 18.4 million viewers and 7.8/19 in adults 18-49.

In addition to its early win in the fall-season Sunday-night wars, ABC continues to dominate key groups with its nightly news update.

Even without a permanent anchor for almost six months, ABC's World News Tonight has overtaken NBC Nightly News for the past two quarters in the news demographic of adults 25-54.

It's the first time since 1996 that ABC has been able to record back-to-back quarterly wins in the demo; Nielsen Media Research data showed the margin as razor-thin: ABC averaged a 2.4 rating compared with NBC's 2.4 and CBS's 1.7. In viewers in the demo, it's even closer (2.86 million for ABC vs. 2.84 million for NBC).

NBC remains on top in total viewers and, in numbers released Friday, also won the 2004-05 season in the demo despite ABC's two quarterly wins. It has been the top-rated newscast since 1996. For the season just ended, NBC averaged 9.58 million total viewers compared with ABC's 8.96 million and CBS's 7 million.

ABC's demo wins are all the more interesting because of the fact that they've been done, for the most part, without its longtime anchor, the late Peter Jennings. Jennings' last broadcast was in early April. No permanent anchor has been announced, though Charlie Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas, and Bob Woodruff have filled in on a temporary basis. A permanent anchor could be announced at any time, though ABC News has steadfastly refused to discuss it.

Executive producer Jon Banner said the ratings strength has been a testament to Jennings' legacy and the strength that he gave to the broadcast as well as the overall strength of ABC News.

"It's been a difficult time for this broadcast," Banner said. "We've been dealing with a very painful situation, and we're grateful for all the help we've been getting from Charlie and Elizabeth and Bob."

In discussing evening-news ratings, NBC said it takes the long view and not just a quarterly number. (NBC also said that it had won 33 of the past 35 quarters in adults 25-54, including three ties).

"We won the season, we won the season before that, and I don't want to lose sight of households," NBC Nightly News executive producer John Reiss said. "We won in total viewers, we won in homes, and we won in the demo. What more can you ask for?"

ABC discounts NBC's claims that total-viewers numbers matter as much as performance in the demo.

"What we do costs an enormous amount of money: Iraq, Katrina, Rita. In order to pay for all that, we need to perform in the key demo," Banner said. "It's how we make our money. It's how the broadcasts are sold."

ABC and NBC have traditionally sparred about the impact The Oprah Winfrey Show has on the evening-news ratings. NBC has said that it's crucial, particularly among women 25-54, who keep the ABC station on throughout the newscasts. ABC thinks it's less so, pointing out that Oprah is only on ABC in 51% of the country.

"They constantly trot out Oprah to explain their falling numbers, but the fact is that the program does not lead into World News Tonight in any market in the country," Banner said.

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