NEW YORK — Time was when viewers could look forward to sweeps months for a loud mix of series stunts, splashy miniseries and all-out promotions.
But sobered by what’s shaping up as a disappointing season, the four major broadcast networks largely are reining in flashy programming in favor of supporting series that may need the extra exposure.
“If you look at February on all three networks, there are a lot fewer stunts than last year,” CBS Entertainment prexy Leslie Moonves said. “And that’s a healthy thing for everyone, because if we rely on stunts, it doesn’t reflect who we are.”
Moonves said 90% of his February schedule is regular-series programming, a figure matched by NBC, and both hope to gain promotional mileage from celebrity appearances in series.
“By and large the networks have started to concentrate a little more on regular programming during sweeps than they used to, especially because there are so many marginal or borderline shows they’re trying to get an audience for,” said Steve Sternberg, senior VP of media research at BJK&E Media Group.
The only preemption comes Tuesday with President Clinton’s State of the Union address on all four networks.
But ratings-challenged networks such as ABC are plugging holes left by weak series with movies and specials, much as CBS did last season, and the Alphabet web is adding a fourth movie night for theatricals dubbed “ABC Action Thursday.” Fox is resorting to plenty of animal and video specials, including “The World’s Scariest Police Chases.”
“We need a promotion platform for our midseason shows” to be launched immediately following the ratings period, said Jeff Bader, ABC’s VP, program planning & scheduling.
“In a perfect world, you don’t need to have extra movies in sweeps because your series are working. Unfortunately, we’re not in that position right now.”
NBC again figures to easily win the important Jan. 30-Feb. 26 ratings period, on the strength of its regular-series programming. But it also has two high-profile events set for the period: The two-part “Asteroid” miniseries that’s been promoted relentlessly since November, and the TV premiere of “Schindler’s List,” the acclaimed Steven Spielberg Holocaust drama running as a 3-1/2-hour Sunday movie. Both are expected to be ratings highlights for the month, repeating NBC’s earlier minis success with “Pandora’s Clock,” “The Beast” and “Gulliver’s Travels.”
ABC’s centerpiece is Meryl Streep’s first TV movie, “… First Do No Harm” on Feb. 16, and NBC Sports has the NBA All-Star Game in primetime on Feb. 9.
On the kudos circuit, CBS has the Grammys, NBC has the Screen Actors Guild and Soap Opera Awards, ABC has the American Comedy Awards and Fox the NAACP Image Awards.
And in other theatrical bows, Fox has the broadcast premiere of “True Lies,” CBS has “Dave” and ABC has “Freejack” and “Beverly Hills Cop 3,” both to be plugged into a fourth movie night on the Alphabet web’s troubled Thursday schedule.
Ultimately however, the typically ambitious sweeps offerings have underwhelmed advertisers this time out, and for many networks, the period represents a holding pattern of sorts in the midst of a difficult year until a raft of mid-season replacements kicks in during March, joining a handful of new series already airing, such as NBC’s “Chicago Sons” and “The Naked Truth” and “Orleans” on CBS.
But because affiliates depend on sweeps to set ad rates, the webs still oblige with special programming, even if it’s more low-key than before. “Even in our dip from the strength of the mid-’80s, we always outperformed our season averages in the sweeps,” NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield said.
The strategy’s value has been borne out so far by this year’s performance. For the season-to-date through Jan. 19, ABC’s primetime household ratings are off 15%, while CBS is up 2%, putting both in a heated battle for second place. NBC is off 9%, while Fox is up 3%, from averages improved by the World Series. They will no doubt be bolstered by the Super Bowl, too.
But among regular series and movie programming during the fourth quarter, the Big Four networks were down a combined 7% among 18- to 34-year-olds, and CBS is off in all key demos, lifting its household average 3% en-tirely from gains in the 55-plus bracket, according to a new analysis of fourth-quarter ratings by the J. Walter Thompson ad agency.
“The networks are losing ground, but proportionately they’re losing more ground among younger viewers,” said Dave Marans, JWT’s media research director.