Fox flashy in freaky February sweep

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Packed with such highly rated events as the Super Bowl and award shows, February has always been considered an off-kilter sweep month. But in terms of wonky ratings math, few Februarys on record can compare with this one.

With a couple of days left in the sweep, Fox is expected to win with a towering 6.9 average among the key adults 18-49 demographic, up a gibbering 41% from last year. The other networks are down sharply, with percentage drops ranging from 19% (NBC) to 56% (CBS). Among total viewers, the standings are similar, with Fox averaging 17.8 million viewers and the other networks posting declines.

Are there caveats? Heck, there's nothing but caveats: Having the most-watched Super Bowl in eight years dramatically increased Fox's year-over-year comparison, while CBS' decrease was extra steep (because CBS had the Super Bowl last year). The writers strike decimated networks that lean heavily on scripted programming. And, of course, DVRs continue to chip away at live viewing (23% DVR penetration, by the latest count).

"This is unusual, if not unprecedented, so the numbers have to be viewed accordingly," said John Rash, senior vp and director of media negotiations at Campbell Mithun. "Sweeps are already an audience anachronism, and this February is relatively irrelevant compared to most February sweeps with full scripted competition -- which still shouldn't diminish from the success Fox has had."

Through Monday, Fox's biggest successes are the Super Bowl (97.5 million viewers/37.6 share), the post-Bowl episode of "House" (30.3 million/13.5) and "American Idol" (averaging 27.6 million/10.9 for the month). New game show "The Moment of Truth" has declined most weeks since its debut but remains competitive.

For the sweep, ABC is second in the demo (2.8, down 30%; 8.4 million viewers, down 21%). Although ABC's presentation of the 80th Annual Academy Awards (32 million/10.7) was the lowest-rated ever, it was still the highest-rated non-Fox program of the month. ABC's "Lost" opened well on the first day of the sweep ) but has declined slightly with subsequent episodes (averaging 14.8/6.2).

NBC is in third place for the sweep (7.7 million, down 13%; 2.5, down 19%), enduring less of a decline than Fox's other competitors. But that boast is offset by the fact that the network was in a distant fourth place in February 2007. Highlights include the Monday editions of "Deal or No Deal" (averaging 14.4 million viewers/4.5 rating) and the two-hour move/backdoor pilot for "Knight Rider" (12.7/5.0).

CBS is fourth, down steeply because of having the Super Bowl last year and a relatively modest reality lineup to offset the strike (8.3 million, down 49%; 2.3, down 56%). Although the Grammys were down this year, it was nonetheless CBS' February tentpole (17.4/6.6). "Survivor: Micronesia" has been dipping this month but continues to perform well (averaging 13.6 million/4.7).

The CW Network is fifth (2.4 million, down 29%; 0.9, down 31%) and hard hit -- the network's schedule was 42% repeats. The highest-rated program was an episode of "Smallville" (4.5 million/2.1).

For the week ending Feb. 24, Fox won the week (15 million viewers/5.7 rating) with three episodes of "Idol," earning its seventh consecutive weekly win. ABC (9.9 million/3.2) was second, led by the Oscars.

NBC (7.2 million/2.3) enjoyed its sixth straight Monday night victory, plus had an above-average Friday night debut for "Amnesia" (7.4 million/2.4). For CBS (7.9 million/2.1), a repeat of "Two and a Half Men" (12.5/4.1) tied "Survivor" (12.7/4.1) in the demo as the network's top-rated show. On the CW (2.4/0.9), the 10th-cycle debut of "America's Next Top Model" (3.8 million/1.9) came up a bit short compared with recent years.
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