Vice President Dan Quayle has been popping up on television newscasts the last few days telling us "it's silly season."
Quayle is referring to the last week before the Nov. 6 elections and fluctuating public opinion polls on voter preferences.
But "silly season" is not a bad term for the fall "sweeps" ratings period, which starts tonight, and includes such, well, interesting programming strategies as a guest appearance by Quayle on "Major Dad," Burt Reynolds shaving off his mustache on "Evening Shade" and John McLaughlin hosting a special retrospective about "Cheers" on NBC as the network takes two weeks to celebrate the 200th episode of the show.
Sweeps is that four-week period each November, February and May when audiences are measured across the country. Future advertising rates are determined by these surveys. So, the networks try to plump up the audience with special programming.
Mainly the special programming takes the form of movies and miniseries most often airing on Sundays, the night of highest viewership. But with broadcast networks downsizing and trying to contain costs, there is less blockbuster programming and more blue-smoke-and-mirrors and razzle-dazzle going on this year.
There are still a number of movies and miniseries on tap.
ABC has a couple of quality productions in "The Last Best Year" (Sunday at 9 p.m. on WJZ-TV, Channel 13) with Mary Tyler Moore as a therapist who befriends a woman dying of cancer (played by Bernadette Peters), and "Call Me Anna" (Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. on Channel 13), with Patty Duke playing herself as an adult in this film about Duke's career, which included childhood stardom, rape and manic depression.
"Stephen King's It" (Nov. 18 and 20 at 9 p.m. on Channel 13) looks promising. The supernatural tale of a group of childhood friends who reunite to kill the thing they first met 30 years ago features Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Tim Reid and Harry Anderson.
Other made-for-sweeps-TV movies include: "On Thin Ice -- The Tai Babilonia Story," NBC's docudrama about the rise and fall and rise again of an Olympic ice skater; "Psycho IV -- The Beginning," Showtime's prequel that explains how Norman Bates became Norman Bates; and "The Big One -- The Great Los Angeles Earthquake," a NBC mini-series.
But mainly it's going to be 30 days of programming like tomorrow night's installment of "The Cosby Show" when the Huxtables deal with teen sex in a special one-hour version. Or Friday's "Full House" when Wayne Newton visits. There is also the return of "The Wiseguy" without Vinnie, as well as the promised answer at long last about who killed Laura Palmer on "Twin Peaks,".
For those keeping a "silly season" scorecard, these are important dates: Reynolds shaves off the mustache Friday at 8 on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) and Quayle makes his guest appearance on "Major Dad" Monday at 8 on Channel 11.
" 'Cheers' 200th Episode Retrospective Special," with John McLaughlin hosting, happens at 9 Nov. 8 on WMAR-TV (Channel 2). NBC promises not only clips of the show, but also McLaughlin hosting a discussion about "Cheers" with cast members and a studio audience. Somehow "silly season" doesn't quite do justice to the notion of McLaughlin hosting a discussion about a sitcom in prime time. It could only happen during sweeps.