NBC senior management must feel like they are on a mission to save Private Ryan, given the preliminary results of the November sweeps. They're still making the ground, but they've lost a few men in the field and the enemy firepower is getting heavier.
November is a vital month for the peacock network. This is the sweeps period when a good performance is all the more crucial as advertisers are scrutinizing the schedule in order to negotiate the cost of future primetime spots. It is also the time when underperforming shows are benched and specials and movies are used to gain viewer attention.
NBC's TV movie The Temptations pulled in a sterling ratings performance on the first of the sweeps: a 34% increase in adults aged 18-49, when compared with last year's TV movie House of Frankenstein.
The first of the two-part Temptations earned a 15 rating and a 23% share in households. But while this gave NBC a considerable sweeps boost, the rivals are within a whisker of its lead.
In the first week of the sweeps (November 2 to 8) Nielsen recorded a 16% share for NBC, equating to 9.59 million households. Just behind in second place, however, is CBS, gaining a 15% (9.32 million households) while ABC took a 14% share (8.37 million).
The position doesn't improve for the second week of the sweeps. Figures to last Wednesday for households put NBC on 9.6 rating, 16% share, with CBS on 9.5 rating 15% share.
For the same period, Fox came in second in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 year-old category on 5.9 rating, 16% share, while NBC achieved 6.0 rating, and a 16% share.
Fox managed to breach the defenses once more on NBC's invincible Thursday night: a surprise breakthrough with World's Most Shocking Moments outperformed two of NBC's 'must see' comedies. Both Frasier and Veronica's Closet were beaten in key male demographics in the 9-10pm time period.
Bob Igiel, executive vice president of broadcast at Media Edge, the TV buying arm of Young & Rubicam, said NBC is down 18% for the season. 'The headline for this season is: 'Where did the audience go?' ER is the only show that is doing over a 30% share. It has been a rude awakening for NBC and Fox,' he said.
Last year's Nielsen figures for the season to date (September 21 to November 8) show just how much ground NBC has lost.
In 1997, the GE owned network's share of viewing among households was 19%, compared to CBS on 16% and ABC on 15%. But this season things look very different.
NBC recorded 16% share of household viewing. In terms of actual homes, it has lost more than one million viewers: 1997's 10,930,000 has fallen to 9,300,000 in 1998.
Earlier this year, NBC top brass installed Scott Sassa as the new entertainment president. The NBC station freshman replaced Warren Littlefield, who oversaw hit shows such as Friends and Cheers.
But Young & Rubicam's Igiel eschews the management changes as a remedy for poor ratings, saying simply that it is the programming that is the issue at hand.
In order to improve its performance, NBC has taken Trinity (from the producer of ER) off the schedule, along with sitcom Encore Encore.
Though the series may return after a brief hiatus, Bo Derek's beach-based series Wind on Water was not reordered. And Conrad Bloom, a sitcom about a suffering advertising executive, has also been revised.
However, Igiel also sounds a positive note, adding that NBC still has the top five shows: ER, Friends, Frasier, Veronica's Closet and newcomer Jesse. But that won't stop the likes of CBS and Fox claiming that they have won this particular battle of the sweeps.