CBS, the network negatively defined in the 1990s by its aging audience and elderly stars in such series as Diagnosis Murder, is officially young again.
As the TV season reaches its first ratings milestone, the end of November sweeps, CBS for the first time since 1980 is the favorite network of viewers 18 to 49 years old, television's most desired audience. While sweeps won't end until midnight tonight, the standings are already determined, and CBS is the big winner, with ABC also grabbing some of the glory thanks to its two new dramas, Desperate Housewives and Lost.
In a year when industry gurus were proclaiming the death of the fall TV season and birth of a radical year-round programming model, ABC and CBS did it the old-fashioned way: by scheduling a traditional fall season that featured a mix of genres - reality shows, newsmagazines, lots of dramas and even a few sitcoms. They are the only two networks that today have more viewers 18 to 49 than they did last year at this time - CBS is up 7 percent, while ABC has 5 percent more young adults.
Calling the victory with young viewers a "watershed moment" in the network's history, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said yesterday, "This victory is no fluke. There wasn't one enormous event that artificially spiked the ratings. We did it with a balanced portfolio."
After opening a telephone news conference by reading past quotes from competitors and industry analysts mocking the age of CBS' audience, Moonves went on to catalog the historic nature of the network's sweeps victory: It was also the first time since 1980 that CBS won the "trifecta" - finishing No. 1 with all viewers, as well as those in the demographics of 18-to-49- and 25-to-54-year-olds.
"And this is the first time, too, that CBS has won Thursday in November sweeps in 18-to-49 in 20 years - since The Cosby Show debuted on NBC," he said pointing to the most lucrative night in network television. "When I came to CBS many years ago [in 1995], even I didn't think we would ever win in 18-to-49."
While Thursday night television doesn't attract the highest overall viewership (Sunday does), it draws the largest number of the 18-to-49 age group coveted by advertisers. In particular, it's the night on which Hollywood studios, hoping to draw young adults to their weekend movie openings, prefer to advertise.
On Thursday last year, the six broadcast networks earned a total of $2.5 billion in prime-time advertising revenues. About 44 percent - $1.1 billion - went to NBC by nature of being the favorite audience of viewers 18 to 49. Some of that money is shifting to CBS by nature of the November victory. If CBS holds the lead throughout the year, it will earn the lion's share of what is expected to be a $1.25 billion pot in May when selling advertising time in the "upfront" market for Thursday nights next fall.
NBC, which will hold its sweeps conference call today with President Jeff Zucker, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Underscoring Moonves' point about a programming mix, CBS is winning Thursday nights this fall with a mix of reality and drama. Despite some predicting the end of the reality cycle, Survivor: Vanuatu has overwhelmed NBC's Joey and Will & Grace from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., with an audience of about 20 million viewers a week. Both Joey and Will & Grace averaged 12 million viewers a week. Survivor also draws more than twice as many viewers 18-to-49 as the teen drama The O.C. on Fox, which has 8 million viewers.
"I think there's definitely been too much bad reality TV, but there's still an audience for reality when it's done right," Moonves said, pointing to the success of Amazing Race on CBS and American Idol on Fox.
The rest of CBS' Thursday night lineup is powered by dramas - CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the most popular drama franchise on TV, and Without a Trace, which has consistently beaten NBC's aging ER this fall.
Moonves had high praise for ABC's hit dramas, saying, "When I saw the pilots, Desperate Housewives was my favorite show from the enemy - from a competitor. I wish we had done it. Guys are watching it. It's not just a 'chick' show. If they continue the quality on Desperate Housewives and Lost, they will be around on ABC for a long time."