Photo finish

Read 'em and sweep: ABC and NBC tie for the May TV ratings sweeps, but both sides claim victory.

Published May 26, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Spin City, indeed.

Thursday's final Nielsen Media Research numbers revealed that NBC and ABC finished the May ratings sweeps tied for first place -- an industry record.

Then, as if a tie wasn't dramatic enough, TV produced an appropriately fitting finish: Wednesday night's season finale of ABC's "Spin City," featuring the three-hanky farewell of star Michael J. Fox, wound up sealing the race.

The decision came down to fractions: four one-hundredths of a point, to be exact.

After 28 nights of prime-time programming, ABC earned a 5.52 rating among the all-important 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet, while NBC drew a 5.48. (Fox and CBS brought up the rear with a 4.1 and 3.4, respectively.)

Given the close call, both networks claimed victory, a position echoed by at least one analyst. "The numbers are not designed to be that accurate," says Tom Watson, vice president of research at the ad-buying firm Initiative Media. "When you factor in statistical error I wouldn't want to bet my house that there's a difference." Bottom line? "They tied."

Here's how the networks spun things.

NBC's take:

With ABC riding the crest of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," everybody expected the Disney-owned network to dominate the May sweeps -- just as it did during the February and November. But thanks to regularly scheduled comedies and dramas (as opposed to novelty game shows), NBC triumphed by overcoming the "Millionaire" advantage.

ABC's spin:

Considering that ABC was languishing in third place a year ago, it wins by matching perennial leader NBC's performance with Regis and by maintaining proven performers like "The Practice," "Dharma & Greg," and "NYPD Blue." (The network, which hasn't won a season's worth of sweeps in 20 years, would probably take a victory anyway it can.)

In one respect, neither network wins: Though May sweeps are used to negotiate advertising prices, the two networks' rates won't differ much after such a close race. Sweep victories -- especially in May -- are more about bragging rights. Execs like to boast to affiliates, advertisers and producers that they're No. 1. Second place doesn't sound quite so sexy.

And they're willing to fight for their honor. Here's a blow-by-blow of how the two networks battled to eke out a win.

The 28-day sweeps period, dominated early on by record-setting performances of "Millionaire's" celebrity editions, really became a horse race on Thursday, May 18. That's when NBC's Must-See-TV lineup of hourlong season finale's ("Friends," "Frasier" " and "ER") delivered blockbuster numbers, particularly in the 18-49 demo.

Prior to that evening, with nearly three weeks of nightly ratings already averaged in, NBC trailed ABC by 0.3 of a ratings point. By the night's end, NBC led by 0.2. While "Friends" and "ER" brought in their usual boatload of viewers, "Frasier" proved to be the wild card. Routinely trounced by "Millionaire," the comedy's highly promoted finale -- which had stuffed-shirt Niles whisking off with Daphne on her wedding day -- attracted a record 33 million viewers. Among 18-49 viewers, "Frasier" delivered a handsome 17 rating, and beat "Millionaire" -- as NBC flaks gleefully pointed out -- by 209 percent.

That dark-horse victory set up a nerve-wracking final week. ABC's "Tournament of Champions" Millionaire episodes early this week whittled away at NBC's lead. Going into Wednesday's final sweeps night, NBC held a one-tenth of a rating point lead over ABC (5.5 to 5.4). In a last-minute stunt aimed at hanging on to first place, NBC ditched "Dateline" at 8 p.m. and reran the season finale of the 18-49-friendly "Friends." (Hey, if NBC's going to pay "Friends'" stars $750,000 per episode next season, it might as well get its money worth.) "Friends" ended up with an adequate 4.6 rating for the 18-49 category.

Then, at 9 p.m., ABC broadcast "Spin City." Network execs knew the episode, featuring the farewell of a Parkinson's disease-battling Michael J. Fox, was going to be big. Case in point: Last week, his interview on "20/20" attracted the largest 18-49 audience for any news magazines this season. And right on queue, "Spin City" blew everyone away, posting the show's best numbers ever, with a 14 rating among viewers 18-49. With one hour remaining in the May sweeps, NBC aired the second half of a two-hour "Law & Order" special, while ABC went with "20/20." When the news magazine edged out the legal drama, a tie was assured.

Who says TV lacks drama?

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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