NBC takes May sweep month, but will viewers return in the fall?


Every broadcast network had some statistic to brag about as the May rating sweep ended Wednesday night in one of the closest finishes ever.

But there was intense disagreement about which network will best be able to carry the May results into the next television season.

May is the most important of three major sweep months (the others are November and February), when the networks try to maximize their audiences for the benefit of their affiliated stations. Those stations sell advertising for the next quarter based on the sweep numbers.

In terms of the basic ratings race, NBC claimed a narrow victory over CBS. But NBC was also the only network not to improve its performanceover last May. CBS was up slightly; ABC fared much better and emphasized that it depended more heavily than its rivals on its regularly scheduled programs and not on movies and specials.

And Fox Broadcasting Co. again made what was really the best showing, with gains of about 20 percent in overall audience. It was Fox's best May ever.

The NBC results gave that network a final average prime-time rating of 12 in the May sweep, with CBS at 11.9 and ABC at 11.6. (Each ratings point represents 921,000 households.) Fox, with only five nights of programs, had a 7.7 rating.

NBC took pride in the results because they represent an eighth straight victory in the May sweep, and a fulfillment of a promise that network executives made to their affiliated stations this spring. NBC essentially held back in the latter part of the television season that ended in April, storing up programming for the May competition.

But both CBS and ABC argued that NBC had not done all that well for its stations because in the time period from 10:30 to 11 p.m., the hour leading into local stations' late newscasts, NBC's programs finished third behind ABC and CBS.

NBC's rivals also suggested that this might be NBC's last victory in the sweep ratings for some time because it was helped by shows NBC can no longer count on. In May NBC relied on farewell episodes of no fewer than five longtime NBC hits, led by "The Cosby Show."

The "Cosby" episode was the highest-rated show of the month, but NBC also got exceptional results for other special programs, including a one-hour episode of "Cheers" and the farewell episode of "The Golden Girls."

CBS' biggest show of the month was the closing episode of "Murphy Brown," in which her baby was born. ABC improved its standing by grouping the final episodes of three of its series -- "Who's the Boss," "Growing Pains" and "Macgyver" -- on one night.

Fox reached almost every teen-age viewer in the country with the season-ending episode of "Beverly Hills 90210."

NBC responded to statements about its bleak future in the sweep by saying it hoped to gain new momentum from its coverage of the Olympics this summer from Barcelona, Spain.

Increasingly the emphasis of three of the four networks -- all but CBS -- is not on the traditional Nielsen measurement of television households but on the demographic breakdown of the television audience.

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