Fading CBS will try desperate measures for sweeps month

April 27, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The ratings are bad for CBS this year, and that means good news for viewers in coming days. Well, semi-good news, anyway.

May sweeps, the last and biggest bang of the 1994-95 television season, will start tonight and continue through May 24. In a no-holds-barred effort to assuage unhappy affiliates, who have seen the ratings for their late newscasts sink as a result of CBS' lackluster prime-time programs, the network will air an unusually large amount of special programming during the next 30 nights.

The May lineup includes: Anjelica Huston and Melanie Griffith in Larry McMurtry's "Buffalo Girls," Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly in another "Cagney & Lacey" film, Jim Garner in a new "Rockford Files," and possible wedding bells for both Dr. Quinn (Jane Seymour) and Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen). Yes, there are always weddings during May in Television Land.

Of course, since a ratings gain for one network almost always means a ratings loss for another, more special programming from CBS means more from the others.

ABC, NBC and Fox are not going to counter CBS fully in terms of quantity. They don't have to. Each has enjoyed some prime-time growth with key demographic audiences this season, meaning they have much happier affiliates and advertisers than CBS does.

But none wants to be blown out of the water, either. A bad ratings report card in May could hurt summer sales. So, each will selectively up the ante in the pot of prime-time programs with miniseries, movies and special episodes of weekly series.

ABC has another Stephen King miniseries, a movie about the Navy's "Tailhook" scandal, and a possible wedding for Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and Costas (Sharon Lawrence) on "NYPD Blue."

NBC has Sherilyn Fenn in the miniseries titled "Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story," and Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."

Fox has a marriage proposal for Kelly (Christina Applegate) on "Married . . . With Children," the premiere of Francis Ford Coppola's "White Dwarf" (a film about a young doctor coming of age in outer space), and the "Melrose Place" finale involving one of the characters' setting off a bomb at the apartment complex.

Even though PBS and the cable channels don't live and die by sweeps, the way the commercial networks do, they'll be getting in on the act on a limited basis. Their fear is that not offering any different programming might prompt viewers to leave and never come back.

So HBO will offer George C. Scott and Michael Jai White in "Tyson," a docudrama about the former heavyweight champ who just got out of prison, as well as James Woods in a film about the McMartin preschool case, "Indictment." Discovery will air "The Fall of Saigon," a documentary on the 20th anniversary of that event. PBS' big effort is Ric Burns' six-hour documentary, "The Way West."

From first to third

But CBS and its problems are key to understanding the extra programming push this May.

How bad are things at CBS? The network has gone from first to third in overall ratings in the last 11 months. It's now in fourth place behind Fox with the key demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49 -- even though Fox has only about three-fourths the affiliates CBS does.

CBS did so poorly during the first months of the fall season that the network is giving free time to advertisers to make good on programs that didn't deliver promised audiences in October, November and December.

Things got worse in '95. CBS earnings for the first three months show a 68 percent drop compared with the same three months last year -- from $69.3 million last year to $21.9 million this year.

It's reached the point where CBS President Laurence Tisch might have to lower his $5 billion asking price for the network, according to

Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

The ones hurt the most are the CBS affiliates -- especially new ones, such as WJZ in Baltimore.

"If a network puts a push behind a month, often it's going to help you out -- or vice versa," says Andre De Verneil, research director at WJZ.

A WJZ survey of the top 50 television markets found that three-fourths of the NBC affiliates showed an increase in ratings for their 11 p.m. newscasts during the February sweeps, De Verneil says. Ratings for newscasts on many CBS affiliates were down during the same month, the result of poor CBS lead-in, the survey found.

Thanks in part to the sorry lead-in, WJZ's "Eyewitness News" in February failed for the first time in 17 years to win outright the 11 p.m. ratings race. WJZ tied with WBAL, which was helped by a first-place finish from NBC during prime time in February.

Hyping the hits

NBC's winning formula revolves around hyping its hit sitcoms with sweeps guest appearances, such as Bette Midler on "Seinfeld" (May 18).

CBS will try some of that in coming days. But when you have weak series, such as the ones that dominate CBS' schedule, the results are likely to be questionable.

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