Stunt programming is nothing new during TV sweeps. This year, an unexpectedly tight ratings race has caused the networks to perform some last-minute scheduling sleight-of-hand in hopes of winning November’s four-week sweeps period. Last week, NBC yanked “Union Square” (which recently scored a solid 14.2 rating) to make room for a “Friends” rerun, which did an even-better 18.3.
And tonight CBS – with a November victory in sight for the first time since 1994 – is benching the lagging “Murphy Brown,” “The Nanny” and “Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel” to make room for two repeats that scored big the first time around: A “Candid Camera” special and a “Touched by an Angel” episode guest-starring Bill Cosby. “It’s desperation time,” says Saatchi & Saatchi broadcast research analyst Audrey Steele. “Whatever pulls in big numbers gets aired.”
Viewers seem to be the winners, with all sorts of popular programs being tossed at them throughout sweeps. However, it’s a short-term victory. Packing the four-week stretch with gold makes the rest of the year seem more like cheap straw. Consider the numbers: If “ER” produces twenty-two episodes a season and 12 are used up during the three primary sweeps periods, that leaves just 10 fresh episodes for the rest of the year.
At least viewers get a short shot of programming bliss. Advertisers – especially those in smaller TV markets that rely most heavily on sweeps data – aren’t as lucky. Once the sweeps race is run, networks set ad rates based on the ratings of hit shows, even though the next few months of airtime will be filled by the return of the weaker shows.
“At sweeps time, the ratings are generally as high as they’re ever going to be,” says Maureen Bernadelli, a media buyer for Cole & Weber in Portland, Oregon. “So before buying airtime you have to look at the direction shows are going. You have to say to the stations, ‘I’m not gonna pay this amount. You know your shows aren’t going to do the same numbers come January.’” Then haggling ensues, with local advertisers praying for an angel of mercy but settling for Gumbel.