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TV season ends, but dispute remains about who has #1 show

CBS says 'NCIS,' while NBC says 'Sunday Night Football'

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun

9:42 PM EDT, May 22, 2013

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The 2012-2013 TV season is officially over as of midnight Wednesday, but don't look for any clear-cut answer among the final numbers as to what show is No. 1 on prime-time network television this year.

CBS has been relentlessly claiming for months that its drama "NCIS" is the "#1 show" on television. Ads making the claim were still running Wednesday on trade publications' websites.

But, according to Nielsen's final data, it looks like NBC's "Sunday Night Football" actually holds that title.

Or does it?

Here's what NBC is claiming in a release today:

Sunday Night Football on NBC finished this television season as the No. 1 show in primetime (Viewers 2+ and all key adult and male demos), based on Nielsen combo data and all 19 SNF telecasts. This marks the second straight television season, and the only two times on record, that a sports series has been the most-watched show of the primetime TV season. 

For the 2012-2013 primetime television season, Sunday Night Football ranks as the most-watched show (21.5 million, viewers 2+), and the No. 1 program across the key demographics of Adults 18-49, 18-34, 25-54 as well as Men 18-49, 18-34 and 25-54. 

The 21.5 million average viewers for Sunday Night Football (all 19 telecasts) tops second place NCIS (21.3 million);

Does it matter who has the No. 1 show, especially when the news has been relentlessly bad for all broadcast networks this year?

Maybe not, except the airwaves are saturated with stations and networks claiming to be the "most watched" this or "the number one" that. And the claims are sometimes hype and lies.

CBS will probably skin back its claim on "NCIS" this week, because it has bigger news to trumpet, namely that it was No. 1 overall in prime time.

I tried to report this story in January after a season of CBS making the number-one claim for "NCIS" endlessly in promotional spots during football games.

Here's what I found after talking to Nielsen and both parties: It's a matter of metrics and how you count.

CBS was counting only 15 of the 19 prime-time games NBC telecast. CBS did that based on the claim that only games airing once the full prime-time entertainment season started in late September could be counted -- not those earlier in September.

NBC says Nielsen told it all 19 games count.

CBS was also using the audience measured for what is called "same plus seven" viewing, meaning the audience that watches the show when it airs plus those viewers who record and watch "NCIS" in replay during the week.

"NCIS" does well with time shifters, but no live sporting event is going to get much time-shift viewing.

There are larger stories embedded in this flap.

There's the big one involving landmark change in the way consumers use TV and the industry's inability to keep up. Which audience counts the most -- and how do you measure it anyway? Nielsen is running as fast as it can -- and getting more and more criticism from clients.

And if everyone on TV is taking advantage of the confusion to claim that it's No. 1, why believe anyone on TV about anything?

Maybe this is a case of two dying dinosaurs flapping their toothless gums at each other as they stagger off to the boneyard.

But, personally, I would like a little less ambiguity and wiggle room in the claims media make.

Our entire culture needs more clarity and truth. Instead, media give us false confusion, hype and promotional messages filled with them 24/7.