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Dreaming of Sweepless Nights

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Once it was a different story. The networks would pack a sweeps month with half a dozen “true crime” movies about moms or dads who slaughtered entire neighborhoods, and a critic was more than justified in dubbing it The February Creeps. When, in another era, airwaves crackled with soft-core porn-movies about surreptitious strippers and housewife-hookers-we had the May Peeps.
But what of the sweeps month just ended, which began with a yawn and concluded with a snore? Of course-the November Sleeps, relatively free of exploitation programming but also relatively free of entertainment. There was barely a hint of specialness about it, with the occasional glittery exception like CBS’s classy 75th anniversary show. And though beautifully produced, even that magnum opus had an aura of sad surrender, something common to black-tie parties where clips are the big attraction.
The funnier, sweeter and the older the clip, the more unavoidable its implicit lament: “Look how good things used to be.”
CBS was delivered the equivalent of kicks in the shin, of course (or, OK, pokes in the eye) when controversy over “The Reagans,” expected to be a lavish, two-part Supersweeper, forced the network to yank it from the lineup and exile it to its Viacom sibling Showtime, where it was to air, in a hastily truncated version, last night. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that more than one network executive would have stuck a wet finger in the air and sensed an ill wind from a script that clearly took partisan political aim at the most beloved American president since John F. Kennedy, an old man now imprisoned by Alzheimer’s disease. His loyal wife, Nancy-to judge from a 10-minute peekaboo trailer the network sent critics-was made to look so mean and Machiavellian she could be played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford put together.
Even with two potentially boffo nights yanked from the schedule (and another night sacrificed because it was to feature busy little Michael Jackson), CBS still creamed NBC and won the sweeps-except that NBC will say it won because it lured more of those 18-to-49s into the tent, and CBS will say it won not only in total households but in the 25 to 54 crowd, which CBS executives insist every week is the truly desirable demographic group in the first place.
The sad fact remains that however you slice and dice the results, it was what Daily Variety called “a soft sweep for the Big 6” (they include Fox, UPN and The WB) and what USA Today in a low-key way called “a low-key race.” Hell, it was a no-key race. The networks have an answer ready, though, for the fact that together they lured less than 50 percent of the total audience, a sweeps month first:
Something’s wrong with them blankety-blank Nielsens again!
Whenever it looks as though more multimillions have deserted the networks for parts unknown, be they PlayStation 2 or old Dean Martin shows on DVD, the networks blame Nielsen Media Research and People Meters and ripples in the sample or fluctuations in viewer finickiness. Or, uh, the weather. Anything but the programming.
What’s to be done, other than attacking Nielsen for the millionth time? At Disney-owned ABC, of course, the first thing is to cancel one or two of the new fall shows they bought from Disney-owned Touchstone and, bravely and imaginatively, go out and buy a couple new replacement shows from-um, let’s see, how about-Disney-owned Touchstone?! With a war plan like that, we’ll be out of Iraq by the next millennium.
ABC News concocted a wily gambit of its own (Wiley Gambit is in line for the news presidency, and what a long line that is). This plan is a bit of stunting for the next sweeps, in February: Paris Hilton will interview Barbara Walters for a change, and Michael Jackson will interview Diane Sawyer. Oooh, yummy.
CBS executives just returned from The Old Drawing Board with their solution: yet more breathtaking variations on the approved, standard, pro forma and de rigueur Official CBS Sitcom: something about a big fat blue-collar blowhard who manages to have married a bright lithe wife and fathered two cute quippy kids. Laughter tumbles out of the sweetening machine every time Fatso goes to the fridge for a Cold One and stubs his toe, or plans an afternoon delight with the wife only to have it interrupted by, oh, a big shaggy dog.
Leslie Moonves also signed an executive order mandating that David Letterman’s medicine cabinet be kept well-stocked with Viagra.
At NBC it’s Plan A time again: Round up a gaggle of seemingly sexy young actors and build some sorry-ass replica of a sitcom around them, their idiosyncrasies, their unconsummated sexual attraction to one another (unconsummated until season three if they make it that long) and their kooky, cozy coffeehouse hangout. NBC executives could not be reached for comment, however, as they had all, every one of them, taken a sudden consuming interest in Telemundo.
O, must this madness continue? For years someone in the business has annually proposed that the whole sweeps system be abolished. Or else, as has also been advocated, make every month a sweeps month and thereby lower viewer expectations, and production costs, even further.
That takes care of the future, but what about the past? There may be a way: Cancel not only the next sweeps but the last one, too. Say November was all a dream in the old “Dallas” tradition. All the networks can air a simultaneous live telecast in which Dr. Phil appears on the screen swinging a pocket watch in hypnotic rhythm and repeating to viewers in his lullingest and Fuddiest baritone: “You’we getting sweepy … sweepy … vewy, vewy sweepy … .”