`Carol Burnett’ success tugs on ears of execs

Dec 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

With “The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers” special unexpectedly ranking as the most-watched entertainment program of the November sweeps, programmers are thinking family programming and rummaging through their vaults seeking fodder for more clip retrospectives.
“We expected that Carol would do well, but we were also pleasantly surprised at how her show reached across the demographic spectrum,” said Les Moonves, president and CEO of the CBS Television Network. “We expected over-40 viewers would get it, but we were kind of surprised how well [“Burnett”] did with 20-year-old viewers as well.”
The breakout performance of Ms. Burnett, who had two weekly CBS variety series air in 1967-78 and 1991-92, has raised questions about and generated interest in whether CBS and the other broadcast networks would contemplate reviving the long-dead variety/comedy format on a weekly basis.
Mr. Moonves and other CBS officials say it would take the right kind of talent and series packaging before they would even begin to think of creating the next Ed Sullivanlike variety show for CBS. However, just before the start of this season, CBS was developing Ellen DeGeneres’ freshman series (“The Ellen Show”) as a variety series, but CBS executives felt her talents were better suited to a scripted sitcom.
While CBS scored all five of the top-rated specials of the sweeps-including “Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Special” (25.7 million viewers) and “The I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special” (17.6 million)-Mr. Moonves acknowledged that duplicating that success on a series basis could be difficult.
“Lucille Ball was No. 1 in comedy, Carol Burnett is No. 1 in variety, and Michael Jackson is No. 1 in music, but it is not like you can replicate these things” week after week, Mr. Moonves said. “Specials are part of any normal sweeps programming, but you have to be smart on the properties you pick.”
Other network executives, such as ABC co-heads Lloyd Braun and Stu Bloomberg, acknowledged that the ratings successes of CBS’s retro specials in part feed off of viewers’ need for “comfort food” in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. That “comfort food,” they said, also relates to renewed success of family-oriented comedies such as ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” and “According to Jim,” Fox’s “The Bernie Mac Show” and The WB’s “Reba.”
“I do think we are seeing people wanting to be in a comfortable place with nostalgia-oriented shows, but they’re also looking for the core strengths of family shows,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
The ABC programming chieftains said rather than turn to the variety format, they would be more inclined to “mine” the Disney-ABC series libraries, possibly including a “Happy Days” retrospective special in the future.
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, whose network’s 200th episode “Frasier” clip show drew a robust 19.2 million viewers on Nov. 20, suggested all the Big 3 networks will be more inclined to exploit library series programming as a “cost-effective” alternative to producing more expensive one-time-only original specials and telefilms.
“Obviously, everyone here was taken aback by the `Carol Burnett’ numbers, so my guess is that all of the networks will be digging into their vaults to see what is exploitable for sweeps periods,” Mr. Zucker said. “It is more of a function of viewers telling us what they are interested in and feeding their appetites for more comfortable, familiar programming.”
The lightly regarded 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. (ET) Carol Burnett special, aired Nov. 26, drew 29.8 million viewers, scoring the largest audience of the sweeps outside of Game 7 of Fox’s World Series (39.0 million viewers) on Nov. 4. Perhaps almost as notable was the special’s top-ranked performance in households (18.9/29) and among adults 18 to 49 (9.5/23), handily beating ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in all key measures for the frame.