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ABC's final answer: We're No. 1

Fueled by the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, ABC on Tuesday declared itself the most-watched network of the 1999-2000 TV season, with viewership levels up by 25 percent from last season.

ABC boasted of a similar victory in total viewers for May's "sweeps" rating period, which began April 27. Despite the fact that May sweeps and the 1999-2000 TV season don't end until today, the network's lead was big enough to declare its win a day early.

Still, ABC officials swore their success _ which also came courtesy of shows helped by Millionaire's lead-in, especially the Sunday night legal drama The Practice _ didn't indicate an over-reliance on the Regis Philbin-hosted game show, which airs over four nights next season.

"There are a lot of other shows that helped get us to this position," said ABC Television Group Co-Chairman Lloyd Braun, noting that only 7 percent of Millionaire viewers watch the show over the three nights each week it airs.

Despite the omnipotence of ABC and Millionaire, the contest for younger eyeballs in May is a different story, thanks to the son of God, a few Friends and a psychiatrist from Seattle.

During separate conference call interviews with reporters Tuesday, executives at the major networks admitted the battle for viewers ages 18 to 49 was too close to call between NBC and ABC.

Event programming such as CBS's Jesus miniseries and NBC's blockbuster Thursday night season finales for Friends, Frasier and ER turned the tide _ with Frasier outscoring Millionaire by more than 15-million viewers last week.

For those not working at ABC, the news was heartening. With figures indicating the average Millionaire viewer's age creeping past 50, the game show's weakness against youth-oriented shows and event programming has emerged.

"Millionaire is what we call default viewing . . . people will watch this show if there's nothing on," said David Poltrack, CBS's executive vice president of planning and research. "What can beat it is appointment television. Viewers will not watch it every single night."

With sweeps and the season wrapped up so handily, talk quickly turned to the networks' plans for summer and fall. CBS fielded questions about its survivalist game show Survivor, which debuts May 31, and protests over its decision not to carry the Hispanic-centered drama An American Family on its fall schedule.

The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts on Monday criticized the network for failing to pick up the show _ developed specifically for the network with Hispanic stars such as Esai Morales, Constance Marie and Sonia Braga _ at a time when Latino actors such as Jimmy Smits, Benjamin Bratt, Hector Elizondo and Jon Seda have all left network TV.

But CBS President Les Moonves defended the network's actions, saying the show "didn't fit as well" with its schedule.

"We allowed (show creator) Gregory Nava to take American Family and show it to every other network; if they wanted to schedule it, they could," Moonves added. "I haven't heard anything yet on that."

At NBC, executives defended the decision to move Frasier to Tuesdays this fall, despite its May sweeps success, and criticism of its new shows _ particularly a new series featuring former Seinfeld regular Michael Richards that turned out so bad, its pilot episode will be extensively reworked.

With the start of the TV season set to start two weeks late due to the Summer Olympics, viewers will likely see fewer reruns once the 2000-01 season starts.

There's also more original programing scheduled for summer, including a cartoon version of the movie Clerks on ABC beginning May 31, an animated series featuring Just Shoot Me's David Spade on NBC on July 25 and the return of the mob drama Falcone to CBS at 10 p.m. Saturdays on June 10.

"Someday there won't be any demarcation between sweeps and summer," said Moonves, who has criticized the rating period concept for years. "That would be a good move for everybody."

_ Material from Times wires was used in this report.

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