TV Article

The Big Sweep

ABC links lineup to boost viewing -- The network plans to thematically connect ''Spin City''/''Home Improvement'' and ''Roseanne''/''Clueless''

Are you a fabulous party planner? Do your friends marvel at the way you manage to throw a bash with a cutesy theme — Gone With the Wind or Happy Days — and develop that theme down to the tiniest detail? Well, you just might have a future as a TV exec.

Based on a memo obtained by Entertainment Weekly, the ABC ''suit'' responsible for putting together the network's February and May sweeps strategy is diving into the upcoming ratings game with the same kind of bubbly savoir faire that goes into the planning of a prom. Written by ABC's highly touted entertainment president, Jamie Tarses, and dispatched to the producers of ABC shows that air on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, the memo provides a fascinating peek into a network's tactical machinery. The note outlines a series of sweeps events that Tarses and ABC ''think will provide a great promotional cohesion for the network.'' For example:

Vegas Night: Scheduled for Feb. 5, stars from ABC's Wednesday sitcoms will strike out for the gleaming casinos of Nevada to gambol and gamble. As the memo suggests: ''Your studios and ABC will collaborate to foot the bill for this trip which we think can provide...an opportunity for cross-promotional stunt casting.''

Old Flame Week: Leading up to Valentine's Day, long-lost lovers haunt the stars of Roseanne, Home Improvement, and Clueless. Another ''excellent opportunity for stunt casting.''

Chain Letter: A theme suggested for Tuesday, Feb. 25, and Wednesday, Feb. 26 — a character on every show on those nights will receive one of those superstitious missives. For example: ''Michael J. Fox's character [on Spin City] receives a letter...previously received by Tim Allen [on Home Improvement].''

The memo goes on to outline ideas for May sweeps: a whole week of 3-D programming (''We have seen technology which allows the image to look OK even if the viewer doesn't have the glasses'') and a recommendation to squeeze allusions to Forrest Gump — which makes its broadcast premiere in May on ABC — into the lineup. In other words, steel yourself for an NYPD Blue plot twist involving a box of chocolates.

These ideas might sound campy on paper, and some of Tarses' suggestions seem overly opportunistic even by broadcast-network standards (Gump characters on ABC shows?!). But such themed stunts are hardly new. In her previous tenure at NBC, Tarses was part of the team responsible for the network's ''Viva Las Vegas Monday'' in November 1995, and ''Blackout Thursday'' in November 1994, in which a Manhattan power failure touched off high jinks on Friends, Mad About You, and Madman of the People. Both nights were huge ratings successes (although Madman was later canceled). ''Some things that might seem silly do work,'' says Steve Sternberg, an analyst at BJK&E Media Group.

Perhaps that explains why most producers are unperturbed by the memo, even though it seems to portend expanding network control over storytelling. ''It's creatively frustrating to take notes from anyone, especially corporate people,'' says Allan Stephan, Roseanne's coexecutive producer. ''But you know, they're nice people.'' Stephan adds that he doesn't mind Tarses' suggestions. ''I don't know how Tool Time would get a letter from Roseanne,'' says Stephan, ''but it is cute.'' Adds Nancy Steen, Roseanne's coexecutive producer: ''I don't think anybody thinks they have to do it. If it fits, great. And if it doesn't, we move on.''

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