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Nets in Low-Key Mode for Sweeps

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In a few weeks, cable networks will face tough broadcast competition with the conclusion of “Friends” and “Frasier,” the finales of “Survivor” and “American Idol” and the network debut of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”
So who’s afraid of the big bad May sweeps?
Nobody and everybody-meaning cable networks are hedging their bets with a very Swiss-like stance: no retreat, but no offensive charging. For example, all of the dozen-plus major cable networks surveyed will continue running original episodes of established series (such as FX’s third season of “The Shield” and HBO’s fifth season of “The Sopranos”). Some will also air self-explanatory movies (Showtime’s remake of the classic “The Lion in Winter”) and specials (USA’s “Moving Image Salutes Richard Gere,” Bravo’s five-part documentary “TV Revolution”). Very few, however, are willing to risk scheduling a series premiere or a big-ticket special.
The strategy represents a shift from the days when cable bowed and scraped in deference to the sweeps juggernaut four times a year. But it also shows cable is still shy about going head-to-head against the broadcast networks during their frenzied marketing peaks. That is perhaps wise, according to Lifetime Executive VP of Research Tim Brooks, who described the current cable strategy as “more nuanced” than it used to be.
“Most cable networks still don’t launch during sweeps,” he said. “Not because of the competition, but because of all the promotional noise. It’s very hard to get a message that something new and different is out when you’re up against the end of `Friends.’ So anything that requires marketing or promotion, networks veer away from. ”
That includes, he said, his network’s original movies. Prior to 2001, Lifetime would avoid scheduling originals during ratings periods, or would schedule only what Mr. Brooks dubbed “sacrificial movies.” But next month Lifetime will air two new movies that are, presumably, not considered sacrificial.
FX had a similar evolution. During the first season of “The Shield,” spokesman John Solberg said, the show saw a “significant ratings decline” during May sweeps. Once established among fans, however, season two held up under sweeps pressure, averaging a 2.4 rating. This May, the show not only will continue through sweeps, but also will air anticipated episodes directed by David Mamet and star Michael Chiklis.
“We know if we launch in January or March, we’re going to cross the sweeps period,” he said. “It’s more important that the fans of the show get something fresh and original each week as opposed to starting and stopping-and the numbers pretty much bear that out.”
In fact, according to the Cable Television Advertising Bureau, ad-supported cable networks captured 38.7 percent of the total viewing audience during the 2000 May sweeps. By 2003, that figure grew to 46.7 percent. If the trend holds, this year could be the first that cable outperforms broadcast networks during the spring ratings period.
Meanwhile, E! Networks has a unique “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” tactic for handling sweeps. In the words of senior VP of programming Salaam Coleman-Smith, the network attempts to “leverage the hoopla.”
For E!, that means specials profiling cast members of “Friends” and a “True Hollywood Story” on “American Idol.”
“Instead of trying to pretend [sweeps] doesn’t exist, we shifted our strategy to be aware [of the threat], but also not lay down,” she said.
Of course, one network can be counted on to refuse to admit to feeling any pressure-HBO. A spokesperson said the network does not take sweeps into account when making programming decisions. “Band of Brothers,” for example, debuted in September. Still, its worth noting that no season premieres are scheduled on HBO next month.