By Lisa de Moraes
The Washington Post
Two days after CBS proclaimed its prime-time drama "NCIS" to be the season's No. 1 program for the first time, NBC Sports announced that its "Sunday Night Football" was, once again, prime-time television's No. 1 program.
Those seemingly contradictory claims can be made because of the kind of Nielsen rannygazoo that causes The Reporters Who Cover Television to look upon the end of the TV season with smoldering eyes and silent shudders.
When CBS claims that its crime procedural "NCIS" was the most-watched program, what the network means is that during the TV season — which began Sept. 24 and ended Wednesday night — "NCIS" had the most viewers on average: 21.3 million of them.
When NBC Sports claims that "Sunday Night Football" was the most watched program, the network division is including the franchise's average four "Sunday Night Football" broadcasts that aired before the start of the TV season — and one of them didn't even air on a Sunday night. Those extra broadcasts bring "SNF's" average up to 21.5 million viewers.
Nielsen, you see, allows a show to track its ratings for the season from the series premiere, even if the first telecast airs before the start of the TV season. That policy was put into place specifically to deal with preseason premieres.
NBC Entertainment's stats for the network's football do not include that preseason Wednesday "Sunday Night Football" game; nor does the division include the "Sunday Night Football" game that aired on Thanksgiving — a Thursday.
And all those "Sunday Night Football" games that aired before the start of the TV season do not get counted in NBC's prime-time season average.
NBC Sports is not the only TV division that evades the fair and square in this sickeningly craven way. CBS Entertainment has some answering to do, too.
Consider this: The "NCIS" season finale aired last week, but the TV season did not end until Wednesday night — and CBS this week aired an "NCIS" rerun.
That rerun would have been included in the "NCIS" season average. That is, had CBS not flip-flopped the time slot for "NCIS" with "NCIS: Los Angeles."
Because "NCIS" this week aired at 9 p.m. (instead of 8), CBS got to "special out" the rerun, which meant that the episode was not included in the show's season average.
Speaking of reruns, it does seem unfair that "Sunday Night Football" gets to compete with scripted entertainment series for the season's top spot, given that football never has rerun ratings in its mix.
If you take rerun episodes out of the "NCIS" season and compare its original episodes to football originals, "NCIS" wins with 22.46 million.
Your move, Nielsen.