CBS edges ABC as season's ratings champ

— Live by Regis Philbin, die by Regis Philbin.

That's the lesson learned at ABC, which unexpectedly won the television season ratings championship last year because of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and lost it this year when the game show faded.

CBS narrowly beat ABC for the season's prime-time crown in a competition so close it wasn't decided until the last night of the TV season on Wednesday.

Among total viewers, CBS' average for the year was an estimated 22,000 over ABC, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"It's probably the most competitive season we've seen in a very long time," said Lloyd Braun, ABC entertainment president. "All of us are one big hit away from being No. 1. We didn't have the big hit this year. CBS did."

In fact, ABC had a fairly comfortable lead this season until CBS premiered the second edition of "Survivor" in January and scheduled it for Thursday nights. Its success, coupled with that of the freshman drama, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," transformed the competitive landscape on a night NBC has long dominated.

It's the second time in three years that CBS won the mythical ratings championship.

CBS averaged 12.53 million viewers in prime time, up 1 percent from last year; ABC averaged 12.51 million, down 12 percent; NBC averaged 11.6 million, down 6 percent and Fox averaged 9.6 million, up 7 percent.

"We clearly are in the best competitive position that we've been in for many years," CBS President Leslie Moonves said.

ABC's decline can largely be attributed to the fading of "Millionaire" from a sensation to just a solid ratings performer. The game show aired four nights a week on ABC, and will be cut down to two next fall.

Despite its viewership decline, NBC can still boast about topping the ratings among people aged 18 to 49, the demographic most watched by advertisers.

NBC's loss of dominance on Thursday nights was countered by the growing strength of dramas like "The West Wing" and "Law & Order." "ER" was the season's second-ranked individual show, behind the second "Survivor."

Fox, which finished second among viewers aged 18 to 49, had a strong comeback this year behind new shows like "Boston Public" and "Dark Angel."

"Our goal is to be No. 1 next year in (viewers aged) 18 to 49," said Gail Berman, Fox entertainment president.


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