Sweeps push TV gimmicks under the rug

Networks ditch specials, bank on hit series and big events instead

February 01, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,sun television critic

Television viewers used to know exactly what to expect during the dark and wintery nights of February: high-concept, big-budget miniseries and trashy, made-for-TV movies.

In February 2000, for example, CBS' Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, a sleazy, two-night exploration of the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey, went head-to-head with Fox's showcase, Getting Away with Murder: The JonBenet Ramsey Story.

Meanwhile, NBC bet the farm on The 10th Kingdom, a $24 million fantasy of trolls and elves in subterranean Central Park. The special effects extravaganza ran for 10 hours on five nights and plunged NBC into last place.

Nothing so over-the-top is planned this year.

Like many other network traditions, February sweeps, a four-week period beginning tonight that is used to set advertising rates for the next three months, have been drastically altered by new technology and corporate belt-tightening. Gone are the wretched excesses that led American Demographics magazine in 2001 to describe sweeps as "the silly season of TV programming when no audience-luring gimmick ... or blockbuster miniseries is too salacious, provocative or bizarre for human consumption."

To be sure, some beefed-up programming will be offered this month. Both Fox and ABC, for example, will present a night of double episodes of hit dramas 24 and Lost, respectively. And three of the next four Sunday nights will be filled with big, live events - the Super Bowl, Grammy and Oscar telecasts.

But programmers can no longer afford to indulge in high-flying scheduling madness. This year in particular, analysts say, the networks are dealing with the effects of a fall marred by budget-busting, serialized dramas that drew low ratings.

"What viewers will see this month is the result of the TV industry trying to develop a new model for sweeps programming," says University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery.

"It's an attempt at finding a more cost-effective way of doing business - one that eliminates the unpredictability of event miniseries and big movies that might bomb."

To a certain extent, cost concerns have simplified the networks' sweeps strategies. Programmers use their most popular series to create "big event evenings," or invest in tried-and-true live productions, like the Oscars and Grammys, rather than attempting to manufacture one-time-only blockbusters.

"It's far more important and productive to `event-ize' your series in sweeps than it is to try and create events with expensive `one-offs' - movies, specials and miniseries that air once and are gone," says Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic planning and scheduling at Fox.

Beckman and the other Fox programmers, for example, know they can count on at least 14 million viewers for each episode of the anti-terrorist thriller 24.

There is little risk, then, in expanding the hit drama, which features Kiefer Sutherland as federal agent Jack Bauer, on Feb. 12 from one hour to two. Indeed, Fox executives can reasonably expect to reap hundreds of thousands of extra dollars in advertising that night.

Fox will repeat the strategy Feb. 22 with an even bigger hit, American Idol. The talent show has attracted as many as 33.8 million viewers a night this season. Instead of airing only on Tuesday and Wednesday (Feb. 20 and 21) in one particular week, Fox will add a Thursday-night edition on Feb. 22 - its first live results show of the season. The profit achieved without risk that night will be in the millions of dollars.

On Feb. 7, ABC will use a similar strategy - by offering back-to-back hours of Lost. The first hour, Lost Survivor Guide Special, is intended to bring viewers up to date on the action series that has been on hiatus since November. The series will re-launch in the second hour.

While all of ABC's hit series - Grey's Anatomy, Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives - will feature larger-than-life story arcs and guest stars, the network's biggest sweeps night will be Feb. 25, when it airs the 79th Annual Academy Awards telecast with Ellen DeGeneres as host.

"One of the major changes during the past few years is that both the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl have been moved into the February sweeps, and that makes a big difference in Sunday night strategy," according to Fox's Beckman.

The Super Bowl used to be in January, while the Oscar telecast was in March. Indicative of the way in which television has come to shape the rhythms of American entertainment, the networks two years ago induced the National Football League and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to move their annual galas to February. Both organizations are, after all, heavily dependent on the multimillion-dollar fees paid by the networks to broadcast the two shows.

Now, as much as the networks pay for the programs, they know they will also make a huge profit: The Super Bowl and the Oscars are the two highest-rated TV shows of the year. Neither will flop the way a miniseries might.

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