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WB Leaps in February Sweeps, 03.02.01 ...

The WB joined CBS and Fox as the networks to deliver the biggest growth in their target demos for the February sweep while ABC -- last year's big winner -- was alone in suffering significant declines.

CBS prevailed for the month among total viewers, and NBC was tops in the key advertiser demo of adults 18-49, holding off Fox. Wednesday, the final night of the four-week sweeps period, saw ABC move into a tie with CBS for third place in 18-49 and NBC eke past ABC for a second-place finish in total viewers.

For the month, the WB's 18% gain in adults 18-34 makes it the biggest year-to-year gainer in its demo, followed by CBS' 13% hike in adults 25-54 and Fox's 4% improvement in 18-34. It's the second straight sweep in which the WB has led the way in gains as it continues to build momentum after a soft 1999-2000 season; in some categories, the network is performing at the highest levels in its seven-year history.

WB execs pointed out in a press conference Wednesday that the gap continues to close between their network and the established outlets in the WB's target demos. Season-to-date, for example, the WB's 2.0 rating, 5 share in adults 18-34 is 87% higher than in its first season (1.2/3), while the Big Four are down by margins ranging from 25% to 42%.

``We're up in the demographics we sell ad time in, and that the other networks are struggling in,'' WB chief Jamie Kellner said. ``That puts us in a great competitive position.''

Among the WB's many highlights for the month, Kellner pointed out, were hefty gains on all five week nights. Thursday's newcomer ``Gilmore Girls,'' for example, has been a pleasant surprise, boosting the network by nearly 20% in adults 18-34 vs. a year ago despite facing both ``Survivor'' and ``Friends,'' while bellwether teen soap ``Dawson's Creek,'' now under the leadership of executive producer Greg Berlanti, was up 59% year-to-year in women 18-34.

Also, ``7th Heaven'' -- the WB's top-rated show for a fourth straight season -- has become its first series to move successfully into syndication, boding well for the network's other dramas. And the WB's first reality series, ``Popstars,'' has significantly boosted Friday night while also providing nice synergy possibilities with AOL Time Warner corporate sibling Warner Music Group.

Fox's big month was highlighted by four nightly wins in adults 18-49 (Saturday through Tuesday), helping the network finish within two-tenths of a ratings point behind leader NBC -- its most competitive sweeps ever.

Net also won in adults 18-34 for a fifth straight February, claiming six nights (all but Thursday) and 12 of the month's top 20 shows.

``Temptation Island'' (average of 8.7/17 in adults 18-49) was certainly a big factor in getting Fox close to NBC in 18-49, but the network also had plenty of scripted series successes. Leading the way was laffer ``That '70s Show, `` whose Tuesday originals won in key demos every week (up by 66% in 18-49 vs. the time period a year ago) and which did yeoman's work in repeats (also time slot winners) on Wednesday.

Fox also rolled on Mondays (''Boston Public''/''Ally McBeal'') and won each half-hour on Sundays in adults 18-49, 18-34 and teens, while Wednesday newcomer ``Grounded for Life'' ranked as the top rookie comedy of the sweep in 18-34.

CBS, with a vastly improved ``Survivor''-led Thursday lineup and double-digit demo gains for each of its Monday programs, avoided a fourth-place demo finish in adults 18-49 in a major sweep for the first time (except for Olympics months) since November 1994. It also moved up to second in adults 25-54 (5.4/13) -- 2 shares out of the lead after lagging by 5 shares a year ago.

``Survivor'' was the No. 1 show of the sweeps in total viewers (averaging 28.77 million), boosting CBS to its first non-Olympics February victory by that measure since 1993. Its lead-out, rookie hit ``CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,'' was No. 4 (21.38 million).

CBS would have fared even better if not for a steep ratings decline for its longform projects. Its 12 hours of made-for-TV movies this month averaged 10.4 million viewers and a 2.6 rating in adults 18-49 -- drops of 25% and 43% vs. a year ago.

ABC's struggles can be traced largely to ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.'' The quizzer won only three of its 15 hours in adults 18-49 this month (averaging a 4.8 rating), after winning 13 of 16 hours a year ago, when it was at its peak (9.4 average).

After averaging demo ratings of 5.8 in the November 1999 sweeps and 6.1 in the February 2000 sweeps, both won outright by ABC, ``Millionaire'' dipped to a 5.5 last May when ABC tied for first; a 5.1 last November when it finished second; and to a 4.4 this February when it tied for third.

ABC slipped by 28% in adults 18-34 and 30% in men 18-34 -- and that's despite nine episodes of ``The Mole,'' which has become the network's top-rated entertainment series in the demo. Older-skewing female-targeted made-for-TV movies such as ``These Old Broads'' and a Judy Garland two-parter didn't help, although they were two of the four most-watched movies on the networks for the month (all were on ABC).

ABC looks to improve upon its fourth-place finish in adult male demos with upcoming midseason entries like ``My Wife and Kids'' (with Damon Wayans) and ``The Job'' (Denis Leary). It does have some comedy momentum going, as vets ``Dharma & Greg'' and ``Drew Carey'' delivered some of their most competitive ratings this season during the month.

NBC's strong performers included ``Ed'' and newsmag ``Dateline.'' Two of the network's strongest series -- Wednesday's ``The West Wing'' and Thursday's ``Friends'' -- withstood stiff challenges from reality series (''Temptation Island'' and ``Survivor,'' respectively); ``West Wing'' was up 51% in adults 18-49 vs. a year ago (6.5 vs. 4.3), while NBC's Thursday comedy block virtually matched its demo average of a year ago (10.3 vs. 10.4).

In other NBC highlights, both of its ``Law & Order'' franchises delivered their strongest demo averages ever for a sweep, and ``ER'' again ranked as the No. 1 show in adults 18-49 (13.8/35).

Then there's the XFL football league, whose ratings dropped off dramatically after a very strong start on the opening Saturday of the sweep. Thanks to the one big night, though, NBC's four-Saturday average this month (3.4) was only 13% behind last year, when it aired dramas.

UPN, also hurt slightly by the XFL, was down by most measures year-to-year. Thursday's ``WWF Smackdown'' has taken a slight hit opposite ``Survivor,'' but the network's inability to develop new hits is what has hurt it the most.

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