In Depth

Sweeps a Patchwork in February

Strike Renders Annual Data Less Useful Than Ever

The February sweep, goes the annual industry consensus, is the weird one.

In recent years February has been dominated by ratings-spiking events such as the Super Bowl, Grammys and Oscars, not to mention Fox’s “American Idol.” The shows make the month a tricky benchmark for local markets to use to predict future average ratings.

With the Writers Guild of America strike against the networks and studios in full swing, this time the description “weird” doesn’t even cut it. Network schedules are going to be a patchy make-shift slate of repeats, reality and occasional scripted originals, making the ratings data generated during the sweep less useful than ever.

“We use sweeps to project ratings moving forward, and that’s the big missing link because the programs running in February won’t necessarily be running in May,” said Mary Barnas, executive VP and director of local media at Carat. “We won’t be able to use [that data] due to the volatility of programming.”

What the sweep will be used for, Ms. Barnas continued, is to gauge which replacement programs are performing well. Each network has some unique ammo to fire during the month, given the difficult production circumstances.

“February is an abnormal month to begin with, and this is going to make it even more unusual,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at Katz Television Group. “Those who are successful will point to the fact they performed well even with the strike. Those who did poorly will blame the strike.”

Fox Is Favored
With the Super Bowl and “Idol,” Fox is heavily favored to win the sweep. The network also will have on offer its intriguing game show “Moment of Truth,” premiering Jan. 23, and the action drama “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which premiered Sunday night.

“It would appear, if there’s any advantage because of the way things have fallen, the advantage goes to Fox,” Mr. Carroll noted. “Fox was always going to have a good sweep. Everybody else was going to be scrambling to counterprogram and now they don’t have the same ammunition.”

NBC will roll out its two-night “Knight Rider” movie Feb. 17, the dramedy “Lipstick Jungle” Feb. 7, Internet pickup “Quarterlife” Feb. 18 and reality series “The Baby Borrowers” Feb. 18.
The number of series premieres during the sweep also is unusual—another byproduct of networks having to scramble to reset their schedules due to the strike.

“Normally you would launch in January or March,” said Vince Manze, NBC’s president of program planning, scheduling and strategy. “But there’s no rules at the moment and there’s no restrictions on February.”

CBS has been running relatively quiet so far this month, but plans to soon roll out “Big Brother” and the second season of “Jericho,” both Feb. 12, along with the “fans vs. favorites” edition of “Survivor” on Feb. 7. The network also has the Grammys on Feb. 10, which could experience some talent boycotts due to the writers strike, but isn’t expected to be as effectively crippled as the Golden Globes were.

Though many expected CBS to be more strike-proof than competitors due to its self-contained drama repeats, its encores have performed modestly since the start of the new year.

“We’re not getting blown out of any nights. We’re hanging in there in pretty well,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations at CBS.

Mr. Kahl added that he’s impressed with the eight-episode second season of cult favorite “Jericho,” which he’s been able to schedule against nothing but repeats on NBC and ABC due to the strike.

“With the short season order, these episodes are flying,” he said. “It’s like boom-boom-boom; the show moves like a freight train.”

ABC’s most anticipated sweeps series is the return of “Lost” (Jan. 31). ABC also has the Academy Awards Feb. 24, though it’s unclear how the program will be presented should the strike still be in progress. Other ABC titles include the drama “Eli Stone” on Jan. 31 and Broadway hit “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, on Feb. 25.

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