Sweeps ‘Odyssey’: ‘True’ nightmares

Network execs aren’t the only ones who have a love-hate relationship with sweeps. TV movie and series producers also find headaches in trying to make their product stand out in a crowded environment.

Take Craig Anderson. The good news is that Anderson, who has four Tony Awards to go along with the kudos of having produced “The Piano Lesson” for CBS, is that his award-winning dramatic touch is much in demand at the networks come sweeps time.

That’s also the bad news. Case in point is Anderson’s four-hour miniseries “True Women” which he is producing for the Eye web. An epic saga about three generations of women and their efforts to change the American West, CBS is looking to use “True Women” to help counter NBC’s big gun “The Odyssey” in the May sweeps. While Anderson is thrilled to get the chance to put “True Women” on the air, the challenge of going against “The Odyssey” and NBC’s marketing machine is daunting.Further, promoting “True Women” won’t be easy. CBS is putting its primary promotion and advertising efforts behind its three-part miniseries “The Last Don” and a reunion of its old hit “Knots Landing.”

“We are a smaller story,” says Anderson. “We don’t have a Stephen King or Mario Puzo to help us promote this. Being on during sweeps is a compliment, but sometimes I pray that one of my movies could go on the air during a quiet winter night.”

Anderson is in the same boat as many producers of both telefilms and series programming. The demand of sweeps takes its toll not only on network honchos but also studio execs and producers who are asked to come up with something special three times a year, as if all the other shows they’re doing in between are no big deal. Stunt castings become the norm and plotlines often take a back seat to cameos.

Both sides now

CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves has been on both sides of the problem. As president of Warner Bros. TV, he had to deal with webheads looking for big gimmicks during the sweeps. Now he’s the one asking.

“It’s a headache,” Moonves acknowledges, “but everyone understands that if you put Bette Midler on ‘The Nanny,’ it will do better.”

Stunting can often boost ratings, which is another reason producers should be willing to play ball. “Marginal shows should be bending over backwards,” Moonves says. “If something pops in the ratings, it gets noticed.”

“The Nanny” is certainly playing ball, even though it’s an established show that will return next year. Besides Midler, other “Nanny” guests include Pamela Lee, Celine Dion and even Moonves in a small cameo.

Tying those stunts into the cast and working with people who aren’t always used to doing TV is no easy task.

“It gets much more complicated,” says Jeanie Bradley, senior VP of programming for Columbia TriStar Television, which produces “The Nanny.”

Among the hassles, Bradley says, are constant rewrites and rising costs. The networks, however, usually chip in up to 50% of the coin necessary to lure big-name talent for stunts. The pluses, Bradley says, “are that it puts new energy on the show.”

Who needs them?

Most stunts are done in comedies because that format is an easier one in which to make changes. Acclaimed drama producer Steven Bochco (“NYPD Blue”) stays away from stunts.

“If you’re a successful show, you have an audience. How many more viewers are you going to attract?” Bochco asks. “NYPD Blue,” he adds, doesn’t need to do anything more to get attention during sweeps than it does throughout the season.

NBC’s senior VP of program planning and scheduling Preston Beckman says the best sweeps shows are those built around recurring characters. “The way to succeed is to have people invested in the show, and not because of a foreign element that usually disappoints them.”

That doesn’t mean NBC is cameo-free. Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier”) made an appearance in “Fired Up,” Jerry Seinfeld will show his face on an upcoming episode of “NewsRadio,” and Bruce Willis in the season finale of “Mad About You.”

Yet despite Willis’ appearance, the plot is driven by Jamie Buckman having her baby. “Yes, Willis is in the show,” says Beckman, who adds that the pregnancy plotline which has been going on all season is what will bring viewers.

Still, Beckman notes, stunts can help build awareness, particularly with new shows. “Viewers have not invested time in the new shows, and we have to look for a way to get people there.”

Like Moonves, 20th Century Fox Television prexy Sandy Grushow has also been on both sides of the coin. He used to run the Fox Entertainment Group, and he understands the needs of the networks.

Grushow fears, however, that an overload of stunts can hurt the show in the long run. “One needs to be cautious about losing the creative ethic of a series in the interest of doing something that will make for a good ad in TV Guide,” Grushow says.

Sweeps is the enemy

From the studio’s perspective, he adds, sweeps is the enemy. “You’re coming up against event movies and miniseries, and those programming events hurt our precious series.”

Added to the production headaches, promotion during the sweeps is also a pain. “True Women’s” Anderson has had to take unusual steps to promote his mini. After all, the daytime and latenight talk shows are also in sweeps, and thus looking for guests from megabudget miniseries and telefilms such as “The Shining,” “Last Don” or “Odyssey,” not to mention to major summer films.

Explains Anderson: “Sweeps affects all other programming. ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘Regis and Kathie Lee’ aren’t going to put our star on the show. It’s a real cat fight.”

To get the word out, Anderson has gone grass roots. A benefit was held for the League of Women Voters, which also heavily promoted “True Women.” A promotional campaign with Southwest Airlines was launched, and niche cable networks were blanketed with ads.

“True Women” is seen as good counterprogramming to “The Odyssey,” but when all is said and done, Anderson knows he’ll be judged on the numbers his movie did and not the competition it was up against.

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