Fall sweeps is the talk of the TV beat this week

SWEEPS STAKES When the networks start boasting about how they did in sweeps, it’s important to listen to what they’re not saying. NBC, for example, is gloating about winning another November contest in the key 18-49 demo, but what the Peacock doesn’t point out is that its numbers are down from last year, and — in terms of total viewers — the net actually lost the sweeps race to CBS. (According to Nielsen, NBC is off 4 percent in 18-49 and 10 percent overall.)

NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield does acknowledge the dismal performances of the net’s lineups on Sunday (particularly Men Behaving Badly and Jenny) and Wednesday (especially the free-falling 3rd Rock From the Sun), and he announced that NBC will give the show a boost by airing a one-hour post-Super Bowl 3rd Rock special in January. Word is execs are also wooing John Cleese to guest-star.

By attracting more total viewers with movies like Bella Mafia and What the Deaf Man Heard, CBS broke an NBC sweeps-winning streak that dates back to February 1995. Though the Eye doesn’t like to acknowledge that those viewers skew much older than its competition’s, CBS Television president Leslie Moonves will candidly admit that the net’s efforts to compete with ABC on Friday night — with kiddie fare like Family Matters and Meego — haven’t paid off. ”I won’t deny that I expected us to do better,” he says.

Fox, on the other hand, exceeded just about everyone’s expectations: It’s the only network that’s up in households, total viewers, and the 18-49 demo. Of course, in order to pull off that hat trick, the net needed assists from specials such as Nov. 24’s high-rated Breaking the Magician’s Code.

ABC — which had a terrific sweeps kickoff with Cinderella and Oprah Winfrey’s Before Women Had Wings — proceeded to all but collapse, finishing the period down in every ratings category. That probably explains why the net wasn’t talking at all.