Sweeps drive storytelling or vice-versa?

Cynics call it stunting. Producers call it making the show interesting.

Viewers can tell when it’s coming, every November, February and May — those precious, dreaded, coveted, anticipated sweeps periods when a network show’s fate is determined and its ad rate-per-minute, measured by its Nielsen ratings performance, is set in stone.

It’s no accident that Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet is shot on “The West Wing” in May, or that Jenna Elfman’s Dharma is tempted to stray from Thomas Gibson’s Greg in February.

This is when network promotion departments labor overtime on the hyping of a show’s each and every angle. It prompts this question — does the ratings pitch drives the storytelling or vice-versa?

On comedies, argues Los Angeles Times TV columnist Brian Lowry, “the ‘very special episode’ syndrome skews the content. It’s an old device by now, and in the May period it’s designed to give more meat for the Emmy voters to chew on. Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser were nearly broken up on ‘Mad About You’ during sweeps, and this year, during both the February and May periods, Kevin Sorbo (as Charlie) came into ‘Dharma & Greg’ as a device to threaten their marriage.”

The tension between what may boost a show’s interest and what’s organic to a show’s overall narrative can stew under the surface of any series’ creative department. As Neal Baer, executive producer and show runner on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” observes, “Each show tries to handle it in its own way.”

In the case of producer Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding “Law & Order” empire (growing this fall with a third unit, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), the buffer is making each episode a discrete stand-alone not dependent on lengthy, delicately constructed story arcs that typify Emmy-winning dramas “ER,” “The X-Files,” “The Practice” and “The West Wing.”

Sweeps state of mind

Baer and “Law & Order” exec producer Barry Schindel note that their shows’ “ripped-from-the-headlines” nature keeps them, as Schindel says, “in a sweeps state of mind, and though we might be tempted by the urge to rush a story onto broadcast because it’s a hot criminal justice issue, we resist doing docu-dramas, which I personally don’t like to do.”

Another lauded series that has Emmy watchers antennae up and that also delivers discrete episodes is CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” TV Guide critic Matt Roush observes, “I have yet to see that show exploit the sweeps periods with something extra-sensational. You could argue that shows with longer storylines might be more harmed by sensationalizing during the key sweeps months, but I think viewers have become conditioned to expect serialized shows to hit peaks and climax in May, and if they don’t, they feel disappointed.”

Baer — who was exec producer on “ER” from its 1994 inception to mid-season this year — says: “We did focus for a long time on sweeps, in terms of storylines, guest stars, events, issues. But it started to change this past year, I think. Before, we did things like Kellie Martin (as Lucy Knight) being killed during sweeps, or Noah Wyle (as Dr. John Carter) being revealed as a drug addict during sweeps.

“The big Alan Alda guest star storyline (as terminally ill Dr. Gabriel Lawrence) was during November sweeps in 1999, and Sally Field’s multiple-part guest appearances (as the crazed Maggie Wyczenski) started in the past November sweeps.

“But this time, Sally left the show after the November sweeps were over. We started to feel that the show didn’t have to time these kind of things to the periods, but think about how the story should play out.”

Nevertheless, producer John Wells’ mantra for “ER” writers is succinct and revealing: Make every episode a sweeps episode. It recognizes the enormous primacy of the sweeps and their direct effect on creating and sustaining network shows, while being just the sort of motivator to keep the quality bar high.

Bait and switch

Selling all this during sweeps is, of course, beyond the reach of writers and producers, and can produce strange yet enduring phenomena such as sitcoms suddenly pitched as tragedies.

“It’s a weird way to promote comedy shows,” says Washington Post critic Tom Shales. “It points to the problem during sweeps with these heavy-handed promotions, where the comedies are suddenly sold as dramas.

“It’s essentially dishonest as a bait-and-switch tactic, the way public television is dishonest during its fundraising periods — putting on ‘The Three Tenors’ rather than three fishes swimming upstream. If you sell the comedies this way, you’re playing fast and loose with the show’s identity and risk turning off the regular audience who tunes in to laugh.”

Baer says: “Hype, especially during sweeps, is a natural antipathy between the show creators and the network promotions department, but that’s part of the process. It can bug the audience, but the promotions people have their own view on this. On ‘ER,’ we’d get apoplectic with them at points, saying ‘You showed this and that on the teaser,’ because we don’t want the audience to feel that they don’t need to see the show.”

False perception

Lowry notes that each sweeps can have its own peculiarities. He says: “In February, you often see that the hyping of episodes leads you to expect more than really happens. The show writers have continued down the course they’ve set for themselves, not pumping up the show for effect during February, but the promos create a false perception.”

On the other hand, major events can be slotted into the non-May sweeps, as when George Clooney’s Dr. Doug Ross left the show in February ’99, perhaps the most publicized character departure in TV history.

And if the producers feel pressure to deliver during sweeps, does it necessarily come from upstairs?

“Working something different into a show,” notes Schindel, “can come from the network offices, or it can come naturally out of our story sessions. I can already imagine Angie Harmon as Abbie Carmichael returning as a guest, since Abbie has a new job as a Federal prosecutor in New York.”

Yet NBC, never forgetting about the big ratings picture, has already announced a massive five-hour miniseries combining all three “Law & Order” shows in 2002.

The month it will air? May.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more