Nets change sweep stakes

Explanded regular fare is now favored over minis, made-fors

The very idea of sweeps can elicit a violent cringe from battle-weary TV execs and long-suffering program producers.

Soundly criticized throughout the industry, sweeps are generally considered a necessary evil. The ratings periods — held November, February, May and July — are used by local stations to determine ad rates.

Hence those screaming local news promos about deadly tap water and neighborhood pedophiles. But on a national level, things have turned relatively calm following years of bloody network smackdowns.

After continually scheduling hyper-budget, big-title mega-events opposite one another in a vicious winner-takes-all battle, the nets have reined in those behemoth specials, movies and miniseries in favor of original programming.

“There seems to be less of a ‘win at all costs’ mentality and a more sane way to do things — especially in November,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS’ exec VP, program planning and scheduling.

It paid off last month, as viewers devoted more attention to Aaron’s proposal on “The Bachelor,” those extra-gruesome crimes on “CSI,” Grace’s wedding on “Will & Grace” and Niles’ heart attack on “Frasier.”

In comparison, specials like CBS’ Victoria’s Secret showcase and ABC’s Paul McCartney concert posted low-wattage returns, and even the month’s two telepic highlights, the Alphabet’s “The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story” and CBS’ “Martin and Lewis,” performed OK — but not boffo.

“This sweeps, among all in recent history, we have a much clearer reflection of the way things truly are at the networks,” says ABC Entertainment TV Group chairman Lloyd Braun. “There was very little stunting outside of regular programming. I can’t remember the last time all four networks stuck to their regular shows.”

According to network figures, around 89% of CBS’ November schedule was comprised of regularly scheduled programming, compared to 84% on NBC, 78% on ABC and 74% on Fox.

That’s quite a change from just a few years ago.

Journey back five years to the first Sunday of November 1997: ABC’s “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Before Women Had Wings” and “Wonderful World of Disney: Cinderella” battled CBS’ “Murder She Wrote: South by Southwest,” NBC’s “House of Frankenstein” and the season premiere of Fox’s “The X-Files.”

Another weekend, ABC miniseries “Medusa’s Child” went up against CBS mini “Bella Mafia” and NBC’s presentation of “Batman Returns.”

“I remember when we did ‘Double Platinum’ with Diana Ross and Brandy for ABC, and it was up against ‘Joan of Arc’ on CBS and some Rob Lowe action miniseries on NBC,” says Storyline Entertainment’s Neil Meron. “What do you watch?”

The shift toward a kinder, gentler sweep has been two or three years in the making. But the real change came last year.

The 2001-2002 season became The Year That Made Sweeps Meaningless, thanks to Fox’s presentation of the World Series, part of which aired during November, and NBC’s Winter Olympics, which dominated February.

Both sports events rendered those months’ sweeps data virtually useless, since advertisers couldn’t use those numbers to set sales rates.

Meanwhile, tough TV economics have also made those big-budget miniseries less attractive to the nets.

“Those big miniseries of the past are very risky and incredibly expensive in an era where everyone’s pressed economically,” Braun says. “Figuring out ways to maximize your regular series promotion is a much smarter way to go.”

That’s not to say the nets are lying down and storing their weapons.

This month, for example, while the networks practiced restraint throughout most of the month, NBC couldn’t help but load three episodes of “Frasier” the last Tuesday of sweeps — while CBS threw on a “Survivor” special and a “CSI” repeat the final Wednesday.

After all, there’s nothing that churns those webhead competitive juices more than a tight ratings battle with a rival.

But those same network execs would rather gloat that their regular schedules won the day, rather than a stunt-filled sked.

Just last year, CBS coasted to a November sweeps victory among total viewers thanks to specials including the Emmy Awards, a Michael Jackson concert and a Carol Burnett retrospective. This time around, the Eye stuck with original programming.

“Our success this November is even more impressive since we did it on the strength of our core schedule with virtually no stunting,” says CBS topper Leslie Moonves, who’s been a vocal critic of sweeps in the past. “We think that bodes extremely well for the future.”

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