Newsmags hold key to ABC’s sweeps bump

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The celebrity interview is back. It’s hot. It’s everywhere. It’s drawing crowds. Big crowds, young crowds.
After a year of sober reflection on the post-9/11 landscape and psyche, the November sweeps schedule is packed with big old-fashioned celebrity interviews. Viewers found Barbara Walters asking Sharon Osbourne about life after cancer and an MTV reality hit, Diane Sawyer asing Jennifer Lopez how she would describe Ben Affleck to someone who didn’t know him, and Katie Couric asking Sharon Stone about her brush with death last year.
“The big interviews become the essence of what network television was always about, which is drawing big audiences and providing that forum for the next day’s talk around the water cooler, to use that old expression,” said Tim Spengler, director of national broadcast at Initiative Media. “It’s event television.”
Ms. Walters hit pay dirt with the Osbournes interview, which attracted 15.3 million viewers, 66 percent better than the “20/20” average, and produced triple-digit demo increases. The hour’s 18 to 49 rating of 7.7/19 was the highest for any newsmagazine in 21/2 years.
Ms. Sawyer’s “PrimeTime” J-Lo installment averaged 14.9 million viewers (up a whopping 115 percent from the magazine’s six-week average), and produced dream demo increases of 350 percent in 18 to 34, 204 percent in 18 to 49 and 486 percent in teens.
“Dateline NBC” scored its highest Tuesday viewership (14.8 million) and 18 to 49 performance (a 5.6 rating/15 share) in 13 months with a story on “Today” show weatherman Al Roker’s weight-loss operation. It also won the hour in the 18 to 34 demo.
While not every big celebrity interview has paid off in huge total viewer ratings, most did get big spikes in younger demographics.
John Quinones’ Nov. 7 interview with the surviving members of TLC on “PrimeTime Thursday” was off 17 percent from the magazine’s average of 5.8 million viewers in the first six weeks of the season, but the teen audience was up 29 percent. “20/20” correspondent JuJu Chang’s Nov. 8 interview with TV and pop star Brandy was off 13 percent from the magazine’s six-week average of 9.3 million viewers, but it boosted its teen, 18 to 34 and 18 to 49 demos by double-digit percentages.
Ms. Walters’ interview with Justin Timberlake, a special edition that opened for “Monday Night Football” in the East and followed the game in the West, likewise fell short of the “20/20” average, pulling in an average of 8 million viewers. But again the demo increases were all up by double-digit percentages.
The biggest “PrimeTime” and “20/20” numbers so far have been produced by special editions that will not be counted in season averages for those magazines.
But there is no disputing the role the specials are playing in ABC’s effort to rebound this season. For the sweeps through Nov. 14, ABC had made its biggest inroads among teens, growing 27 percent in the demo year to year. NBC was up 14 percent, while the rest of the broadcast networks were down.
ABC was up 13 percent year to year among adults 18 to 34 and up 5 percent among adults 18 to 49. The WB is the only other network to post increases in those demos.
Jeff Bader, executive VP at ABC Entertainment, said ABC is “thrilled” with the performance of the network’s comedies and the “phenomenal” contributions by the newsmagazines. “We finally found something that could take full advantage of `The Bachelor,”’ said Mr. Bader, who thinks the Justin Timberlake interview would have made a bigger splash had there been another post-“Bachelor” spot in which to run it.
NBC will see if it can match ABC’s success with Katie Couric’s first prime-time special, “Katie at Night,” which will air at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26. In addition to Sharon Stone, Ms. Couric is talking to country-pop star Shania Twain and Olivia Harrison, the widow of Beatle George Harrison.
But David Corvo, executive producer of “Dateline NBC” and “Katie at Night,” stressed that Ms. Couric also has single-subject, noncelebrity specials in development.
He said the theme for the first “Night” is less fame than it is the challenges each guest has faced. “It was something we could build the hour around,” Mr. Corvo said.