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Bait-and-switch?

Feb 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Critics charge that the high-profile programs whose success during sweeps determines ad rates for the quarter are not the same programs viewers will watch when sweeps are over, making the whole system irrelevant.
Almost everyone agrees that sweeps are an outdated, inaccurate system, yet nobody wants to lose.
Sweeps, which play out for 30-day periods four times a year, don’t mean much to the networks since the majority of their ad inventory has already been sold during the upfront selling period.
In local markets, however, sweeps books, which are determined using viewer diaries, are the only tool many local TV stations have to set their ad rates and sell spot ads since the technology isn’t available yet to rate every market year-round.
With all the specials and short-term series this February, some are questioning just how valuable sweeps results are when the shows used to set the pricing benchmark won’t be a factor during the months for which they will determine advertising rates.
The use of specials, limited series and short-run reality series has increased in the past two years at five of the six major broadcast networks, with a parallel decline in scripted series, which in the past continued to run throughout the following quarter. Most of the stunting is intended to pump up ratings among young adults, the demographic group with the greatest appeal to advertisers.
“If sweeps are an indication of future ratings and ad rates, negotiators will need to ensure that this win is applied toward similar programming,” said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. “It helps establish `American Idol’ and `Joe Millionaire’ as viable entities but does nothing to increase the audience or advertising desire for struggling scripted sitcoms or dramas.”
The use of short-term series has the potential to change how upfront dollars are spent and change advertisers’ relationships with networks, and not always in a positive way, some network executives said.
“Savvy media buyers know that what they’re buying at an upfront and what they are committing to is generally series programming,” said WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin. “There is a great degree of bait-and-switch that goes on in network television, and this fall season leading into the sweeps has probably been the height of it.
“Shows are announced that never see the light of day and are switched for reality programming. That creates a skepticism and a lack of trust in placing media dollars that I think does have a relationship to CPM [cost-per-thousands] growth.”
Mr. Levin attributes The WB’s CPM growth over the past few years to the network’s stable schedule of scripted series that build viewer loyalty and the fact that advertisers know what they are getting when they buy time on the network.
“The history of television dictates that long term you live or die by scripted programming,” Mr. Levin said. “It’s what defines you. It’s something that allows the broadcast networks to differentiate themselves from everything else on television.”
By pre-empting regular scripted programming during sweeps months, “You’re giving the audience an opportunity to break a habit,” he said.
Others argue that highly rated reality shows and specials-whether they be made-for-TV movies or news specials-can actually boost scripted series by drawing in viewers that wouldn’t otherwise have sampled the show.
“In the course of a season, if we have 22 episodes of a drama and there are 351/2 weeks in the season, there’s going to be a lot of repeats,” said Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment. “If you look at it as `The Music Man’ replacing an `Alias’ repeat, we reach more viewers.
“In a perfect world, you would announce a schedule in the fall and never ever pre-empt a series. That’s what would make the most sense financially. That’s what would make the most sense for viewers. That’s not the reality of television though.”
John Tupper, Fox affiliate board chairman and a Prime Cities Broadcasting executive, said there is still value to having the bragging rights of winning sweeps even if the schedule isn’t reflective of the rest of the year, because it lends credibility to the station in its market.
He likened selling a short-term reality series to selling a sporting event. “The next sporting event [a station runs] is going to be different from the last one, but it’s going to be in the range in terms of its ratings delivery,” he said.
Potential advertisers aren’t going to ignore a sweeps victory either, if regular scripted series also turn in better performances as a result of stunting, he said.
“The strategy of the [Fox] network is to use high-impact reality programming to help promote their scripted programming,” Mr. Tupper said. “It seems to have worked in this case because being before the high-rated reality program or after has resulted in the scripted programming increasing its ratings because more people are tuned to that station.”
Both “24” on Tuesday nights and “That ’70s Show” on Wednesday nights have achieved higher ratings than their season averages since “American Idol” joined the schedule on those nights, indicating that more people have sampled the shows. CBS discovered the same thing on Thursday nights with “CSI.” When the drama series moved from Friday night to Thursday night with “Survivor” as its lead-in, “CSI” grew into the most watched show on television.
Mr. Tupper said advertisers will look at those scripted series numbers when they are buying those shows out of sweeps periods. “If a genre of reality programming does well you’ll be able to sell the next one at better rates, and it also has lifted the tide for all of the other scripted programming, because more people are sampling that station as a result of the success of that unscripted programming.”
ABC’s Mr. Bader agreed that short-term series and specials don’t dilute a sweeps book. “Are you better off having a lower-rated scripted series? Not for viewers,” he said. “Viewers watch shows. They don’t watch show types.”
Mr. Bader said unscripted reality shows such as ABC’s “The Bachelor”/”The Bachelorette,” with three installments a year, and “Survivor,” with two have, turned into consistent regularly scheduled programming and essentially have just knocked out repeats.
“This reality explosion is changing the business,” he said. “Right now what viewers want to watch and what advertisers want to buy isn’t really meshing.”
Kathy Crawford, executive VP and director of local broadcast at Initiative Media, said short-term series and specials are a mixed bag for advertisers.
“We are always happy to have new programming introduced to encourage a viewer to watch even more television than they were watching before,” she said. “That being said, it is an easier job for a buyer … having [the programming] the same, but it does not make for a better television environment. It makes our job a little more difficult, but it also enhances the viewing opportunity for the viewer, and as a result of that it may give the advertiser a better forum for their product.”
-Louis Chunovic contributed to this report