TV’s winners, losers

As the networks’ sitcoms, dramas, game shows and reality shows swept through May, they made their indelible impressions, while the media tracking firm Nielsen Media Research furiously tallied the numbers. So, who won the race?

Or, more to the point, who survived?

CBS, with the tremendous success of its No. 1 watched show of the season, Survivor: The Australian Outback, emerged as the big winner. It walked away with the title of most-watched network for households and total viewers for the season. For the first time in several years, CBS won with 8.8 million households and 12.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen figures.

CBS went out of on a limb in January when it announced its plans to air the second installment of Survivor against NBC’s Friends at 8 p.m., marking the first time any other network has truly challenged NBC’s Must-See TV Thursday lineup. It worked. Survivor: The Australian Outback continually beat Friends every week.

“CBS was very bold,” J. Max Robins, a columnist for TV Guide, told Reuters. “On a night where they did no business at all, they put the second edition of Survivor. They also had a solid new hit, CSI, that probably even surprised CBS with how well it did.”

“The fact that we closed the gap in these demos that the other groups talk about so much, clearly is an indication on how well we are doing,” CBS president Leslie Moonves said in a press conference Monday. “We are the only network to get younger this season.”

“Going into next year, our profile should get even younger, with veteran series [Diagnosis: Murder], [Walker, Texas Ranger] and the Wednesday night movie being replaced by younger shows like Wolf Lake and The Amazing Race.”

He also said that CBS would put its new show, The Agency, on Thursday at 10 p.m., which, according to Moonves, would make the network’s hold on Thursday, and young audiences, even stronger. As well as cleaning out the old dinosaurs to make room for the fresh hip programs, CBS pulled the plug on the high-profile dud Bette, starring Bette Midler.

NBC was close on the heels of CBS, winning the 18- to 49-year-old viewers, averaging 5.9 million people from the demographic group during prime time. Law & Order helped NBC win the final night of May sweeps with its highest-rated finale in the show’s 11-year history, delivering a 6.1 rating and 17 share. NBC’s Thursday night lineup also held strong, despite the heavy competition from CBS. NBC’s medical drama ER the second most watched show of the season, while Friends came in fourth.

“May [sweeps] is really important because its the focus stations use the longest until the November sweeps,” Scott Sassa, NBC’s West Coast President, said in a press conference Monday. “The network that wins in May [for the demo 18 to 49-year-old viewers] goes on to win the following season. Considering the fact that we are returning with four nights virtually intact, something we haven’t done since 1989, we feel that next season will be a good one for NBC.”

NBC did make a few mistakes, namely the much-hyped The Michael Richards Show, starring the Seinfeld alumnus.

Fox Television won the distinction of being named most improved network, averaging 9.6 million total viewers this season in prime time compared to 9 million last season. Based on the strength of new shows, plus the resurgence of Ally McBeal, with the addition of troubled bad boy Robert Downey Jr., the network performed well. Such shows as Boston Public, Malcolm in the Middle and the reality show Temptation Island pushed Fox along. And now that it is no longer considered a “fledgling” network, Fox will need to continue its mettle into next season.

ABC, last year’s No. 1 network, suffered a setback this year by coming in second for total households, second for total viewers and third for viewers 18 to 49 years old. ABC’s stable Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the game show that once propelled the network to the top, did not maintain its numbers in this season.

Accordingly, ABC announced it will cut back Millionaire airings to only two times a week, instead of four. The popular game show still came in as the third most watched show of the season. ABC also is shedding itself of some serious star-driven mistakes as The Geena Davis Show and Madigan Men, starring Gabriel Byrne.

ABC and Fox could not be reached for comment.