Series in for Early Endings

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

For CBS’s Becker and NBC’s Scrubs, the doctor will be out this May. And don’t look for NBC’s Boomtown to boom or ABC’s Life With Bonnie to show any signs of life during the upcoming sweeps period. Surprisingly, they are among the seemingly successful series, some already set to return next season, that end their run before sweeps even begins.
Also among the more startling sweeps strategies is NBC’s plan to use original episodes and reruns of its various Law & Order series to fill 30 percent of its prime-time schedule in May.
This season, six series will have finished their runs before sweeps starts on Thursday, April 24, with 11 other series winding up their seasons by May 7, the halfway point of sweeps. Sweeps is the crucial monthlong period when audience ratings determine local ad rates for the next three months.
Almost 25 percent of TV series on the six major broadcast networks will have had their season finales by the time the May sweeps is only half over. That’s up dramatically from previous years, when networks traditionally stretched their original episodes until the very end of sweeps, hyping finales throughout the month.
In the past, the majority of shows that ended before sweeps began were candidates for cancellation. However, this year, many series scheduled for a pre-sweeps finale have actually been renewed or still have a shot at renewal.
ABC’s Life With Bonnie and Alias, for example, have been renewed. NBC’s Boomtown and CBS’s Hack are on the bubble as to whether they will return.
Still, at least one industry insider suggested that the early endings show lack of confidence. “Any of these shows you see ending early on any network, none of them are going to be the network’s heavy hitters,” he said. “You’re getting some of your more marginal performers out of the way before the sweeps starts with the confidence you can replace them with something stronger.”
In place of series, networks feel they have a better shot filling the time periods with specials such as ABC’s 50th Anniversary Bloopers Celebration, made-for-TV movies such as NBC’s Martha Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart and repeats of well-performing series such as CBS’s CSI.
But will specials of The Most Outrageous Game Show Moments really perform better than original episodes of a critically acclaimed series such as Ed, which ended its run April 11?
“Every special is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea,” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s head of scheduling. “Outrageous Game Show Moments is a fun show that’s eminently joinable. It works really well in 8 o’clock time periods, particularly at daylight savings time, where it gets tougher and tougher to program 8 o’clock. It’s perfect for that duty.”
NBC is ending Ed, Good Morning, Miami, Scrubs and Boomtown before sweeps begins and Crossing Jordan and Third Watch before the halfway point of sweeps. Because repeats haven’t been performing well lately, Mr. Metcalf said the network limited the number of repeats on those shows in March and April and tried to pack as many original episodes close together as possible to keep viewers tuned in. NBC plans to use repeats of the few shows that do repeat well, such as the Law & Order franchise and Friends, during sweeps.
“For us and the viewers it’s like having your cake and eating it too,” Mr. Metcalf said. “We keep the other shows in originals for a long run and still have incredibly solid time period performances [in May] where we use those other repeats.”
Jeff Bader, head of scheduling at ABC, said ABC ended Life With Bonnie on March 25 and plans to end Alias on May 4 and The Practice on May 5 because the network didn’t want to stretch out four episodes over 11 weeks and inundate viewers with repeats.
“Viewers don’t schedule their lives around the sweeps,” Mr. Bader said. “They don’t know, or care, that there is a reason there are virtually no original episodes of their favorite shows in March and April. If you can adjust May to have a richer run of originals in the spring, the shows will ultimately perform better and the audience will be happier.”
In some cases early endings are due to circumstance. “Sometimes you just end up backing into these things,” said Kelly Kahl, head of scheduling at CBS. Mr. Kahl added that Becker was slated to end its run on Sunday because CBS already had Sunday night events planned for sweeps, including the Touched by an Angel finale, the Survivor finale and made-for-TV movies about Lucille Ball and Adolf Hitler.
“That just kind of ended up squeezing Becker out of the sweep,” Mr. Kahl said. “We were also able when My Big Fat Greek Life came on [in midseason] to put original Beckers on with it for the entire run.”
The bottom line is with 22 original episodes a year, not every series repeats well enough to stretch over a 36-week season. “Very few shows are up to that incredibly difficult task,” Mr. Metcalf said. “The future is going to be shared time periods and limited repeats of many shows because the audience just won’t stand for a high number of repeats.”