Shower of May shows will bring flowers of ad bucks come fall


April 23, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Murphy Brown has a baby boy. Bill Cosby and Johnny Carson say goodbye. Cybill Shepherd says hello again as a private detective. Whitley gets married on "A Different World." "Beverly Hills, 90210" gets a new character. And the Bundys go to London.

May sweeps -- bizarro time on Planet Television -- start today, bringing 30 days of high-impact and, in some cases, very strange TV into our living rooms.

How strange? Well, if the Bundys in London starting for three weeks on May 3 isn't strange enough for you, how about Murphy Brown's baby shower, planned for May 11?

Brown, of course, is a make-believe TV anchorwoman (played by Candice Bergen) about to have a make-believe baby (on May 18). But real-life anchorwomen -- Katie Couric, Mary Alice Williams, Joan Lunden, Faith Daniels and Paula Zahn -- will attend the TV shower.

Furthermore, several of those newswomen have had real-life babies, and there has been lots of real-life publicity and coverage of their pregnancies and babies. Diane English, the creator of "Murphy Brown," says she's surprised at how many people "think Murphy is a real person." I'm not. With all the blurring of real and make-believe, newswoman and actress, I wouldn't be surprised one week to turn on "PrimeTime Live" and see Bergen sitting at the anchor desk instead of Diane Sawyer.

What surprises me is how easily 10, 15 or 20 million of us can sit down together in front of our TV sets during a period like the May sweeps and collectively suspend our disbelief when our favorite characters start doing extraordinary and/or off-the-wall things. We know perfectly well their actions have nothing to do with legitimate dramatic motivations within their fictional worlds, but are instead the result of dollars-and-cents considerations in the real world of network TV.

And, yet, we believe. The more you think about it, the more it seems like a miracle or some kind of mass hypnosis.

By now, we all know the words -- the mantra recited by TV critics this time of year. "Sweeps are those months -- November, February and May -- when audiences are measured, and those measurements are used to determine future advertising rates."

Even though the official TV season ended two weeks ago for the networks, "there's a lot of pressure from the [affiliate] stations to program aggressively during the May sweeps because it's very important to them on a local basis," David Poltrack, senior vice president for research at CBS, said in an interview last week.

Poltrack explained the importance historically: The May sweeps were invented because advertising agencies wanted some measurement of viewing patterns during daylight-saving time. The agencies have come to use the ratings for May to guide their TV buys into next fall when daylight-saving time ends.

With so much advertising money tied to what happens in May, it's not surprising that programmers try to hype the numbers with high-impact programming. The bottom line, to cite the oft-quoted line from "The Godfather," is, "It's only business."

It's all business, and everybody knows it. Yet the most bizarre developments -- short of Bobby Ewing's doing a return engagement in Pam Ewing's shower -- during the next month will be accepted. For many it will go well beyond acceptance.

Some viewers will cry real tears of joy when Dorothy (Bea Arthur) marries a man played by Leslie Nielsen on "The Golden Girls" May 9. Some will cry real tears of loss when "The Cosby Show" signs off the air after eight years April 30. Everyone will act as if it's perfectly natural that Cliff and Norm should meet Johnny Carson and Doc Severinson in a special episode of "Cheers" May 7, two weeks before Carson's last night as host of the "Tonight" show May 22.

How is this possible? Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, who teaches film at Rutgers University, sees the American TV watcher as a "new type of social subject, part viewer, part consumer -- the tele-spectator, to use French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's evocative term." The consumer part of our brain knows we are being manipulated by the network gang for money reasons. But the viewer part still becomes engaged by the fiction played out on the screen.

It's strange, but it's the way some popular culture works in an advanced consumer society like ours. We start learning to function simultaneously on the two levels the first time as children that we see a commercial interrupt the narrative of a TV program. This is how we learn to accept and love those special sweeps moments, like the one NBC has planned for May 5 when it airs "Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo." It's a made-for-TV movie about a talk-show host who's murdered. It stars Raymond Burr, of course, as Mason. But it co-stars Geraldo Rivera . . . as the victim.

Other TV moments in May:

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