The networks are trading in stunts for serious series pushes this November sweeps.
For years the networks have relied on extravagant specials, glamorous awards shows and huge features to draw in viewers during the sweeps periods. But this November, although the adults 18 to 49 ratings race is particularly close among the Big 4, the networks all are taking a disciplined approach to their lineups. Moving around regularly scheduled programming to accommodate specials has been overshadowed by a renewed desire to build continuity and promote series that already are clicking this season.
For years NBC was the heavy favorite to take the adults 18 to 49 crown during the November sweeps. This time around, four networks have a serious shot at becoming No. 1 in the demo.
For the six weeks leading up to the sweeps, the top four networks were within three-tenths of a rating point from each other in the demo, according to Nielsen Media Research. Driven by postseason baseball, Fox led with a 4.1/11, followed by CBS with a 4.0/11. ABC and NBC were tied with 3.8/10. At the lower tier, UPN (1.5/4) and The WB (1.7/4) were virtually tied.
While Fox has focused on series post-baseball before, the network is not alone this season. Below is a profile of each network’s goals and strategy for making a mark with viewers during the November sweeps, which began last Thursday and continues through Dec. 1.
The goal: “To continue with our upward momentum,” said Jeff Bader, executive VP, ABC Entertainment, “but we’re trying to protect our new series.” The two most prominent new series are “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” the out-of-the-gate-successful dramas that clearly took people by surprise, including ABC. Months ago, when the network moved the 32nd annual American Music Awards from Monday to Sunday, it seemed like a good idea, but with the strong performance of “Housewives,” having anything else on Sunday is now undesirable.
“We probably would have had different pre-emptions in different places if we had known how strong some of our nights were,” Mr. Bader said, alluding to the AMA’s and “Housewives.” But the network has found a bright side: “It actually helps because we need to space out our originals anyway.” Besides, ABC isn’t able to reschedule. “The venue and talent has to be locked up so far in advance we just can’t move it,” he said.
November on ABC still means plenty of stunt casting, including returning guest stars such as Robert Wagner and Jenny McCarthy on “Hope & Faith” as former love interests and Valerie Harper and Joanna Kerns on “Less Than Perfect” as lesbian moms. “It’s nice to have some names on some shows that may bring people that aren’t normally watching,” Mr. Bader said.
Weak performer “life as we know it” takes a break for three out of the four Thursdays of November, but the durable reality series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” expands into dual “How’d They Do That?” episodes that show more footage of the actual work behind the house transformations.
“The one complaint people have with the show is too much, too quick,” Mr. Bader said. “So we’re doing a companion hour that actually shows how they did the house. You see each of the reveals, but from a different perspective.”
Mr. Bader said the companion hours fit into the network’s overall November sweeps strategy of making sure viewers are familiar with ABC’s new offerings.
“November is a different animal from February or May because it is so early in the season,” he said. “You’re only on your sixth or seventh episode. Everyone is still trying to establish their new series from the fall.”
Other sweeps highlights: “Life of Luxury” returns; “American Music Awards;” Jimmy Smits guests on “NYPD Blue”; “The Bachelor” finale; the Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey Christmas special; Dana Delany on “Boston Legal,” Sharon Lawrence on “Lost” and “Survivor” Colby Donaldson on “8 Simple Rules.”
The goal: “In general, you’re seeing the series take precedence, which is what we always try to do,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS and UPN. “We have them, so we try to air them somewhere. Sweeps is where we can do that.”
For CBS, that’s even easier this season, since many of its shows are performing well, including its “CSI” franchise, Monday night comedy block and Thursday night schedule, which features the latest edition of “Survivor” and “Without a Trace.” Two new series that have proven missteps are out of the way for November. CBS benched “dr. vegas,” possibly for good, and shuffled “Clubhouse” off to Saturday nights in favor of the next installment of “Amazing Race,” which performed well over the summer.
But the network isn’t abandoning the traditional TV movie. On Sunday, Nov. 21, CBS will air Hallmark’s “Back When We Were Grownups” with Faye Dunaway, Blythe Danner and Peter Fonda, and on Nov. 28 it goes with the holiday-themed “When Angels Come to Town,” starring Peter Falk. Apparently taking a page from NBC’s success in the natural catastrophe genre, CBS is heavily promoting “Category 6: Day of Destruction,” which Mr. Kahl called “a good old-fashioned popcorn hurricane tornado movie.”
Mr. Kahl also said CBS wasn’t working overtime to counter-schedule against rival networks.
“I’d say we’re mindful of what the other guys are doing,” he said, “but we laid out our movies a couple months ago without knowing what the competition does. Let the other guys do most of the fixing.”
Other sweeps highlights: The “Amazing Race 6” season premiere; “Dallas” reunion special; “The 38th Annual Country Music Awards”; the 200th episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and 100th episode of “CSI”; Denise Richards and Camryn Manheim on “Two and a Half Men,” Angie Dickinson on “Judging Amy” and Wayne Knight on “Listen Up.”
The goal: “We’ve got to get our schedule going,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research, noting that postseason baseball in October makes it impossible for Fox to premiere at the top of the season. “We don’t have the luxury that other networks have to get their shows on the schedule in September.” Which explains all the fanfare around the return of “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development” and building out shows that premiered in June, and the use of baseball to promote new reality series and a selected drama.
“We come into November with three shows that we established over the summer-`Trading Spouses,’ `Quintuplets’ and `North Shore,”‘ Mr. Beckman said. “It allowed us to focus during baseball on one scripted show, `House.’ We’ve learned we have to get these shows established and understand them as well as we can.”
Of course, “Method & Red” and “The Jury” were casualties from Fox’s summer, forcing the network to rely more on “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” and “The Rebel Billionaire.” Mr. Beckman said the network could handle the losses, since it began adjusting to the failures weeks and even months ago.
“At least we found out about it then instead of finding out about it in November,” he said.
Fox is pushing a “Simple Life” special on Wednesday, Nov. 17, and an “American Idol” Christmas special that will launch a Thanksgiving weekend packed with features, but Mr. Beckman said the focus has to remain on generating viewer interest in existing series.
“For better or worse,” he said, “it is less about stunting and more about establishing a schedule.”
Other sweeps highlights: “The O.C” and Sunday comedies season premieres; “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss,” “The Rebel Billionaire” and “House” series premieres; “Simple Life” specials; broadcast premiere of “Spider-Man”; Lindsay Lohan on “That ’70s Show” and Tara Reid on “Quintuplets.”
The goal: “To remain competitive in what’s turned out to be an incredibly competitive season,” said Mitch Metcalf, senior VP of program planning and scheduling for NBC Entertainment. “We’re keeping our schedule fairly intact and doing special episodes and doing some stunting on Thanksgiving weekend.”
“Father of the Pride” is gone for November in favor of super-sized editions of the new reality weight-loss show “The Bigge
st Loser.” Mr. Metcalf said that any network that stunt-casts with the celebrity of the moment is in for a rude awakening. “Something like having a Boston Red Sox player walk on to a show, something like that can come across as silly and contrived,” he said. “When it’s a great actor going into a tailor-made role, that just brings the best out of the show. A fabulous example for this sweeps was the [Nov. 11] Ray Liotta episode on `ER.’ It’s not a gimmick. It raises the show to the next level.”
NBC is running the feature “Men in Black,” but Mr. Metcalf said the days of throwing movies on the air to goose the ratings is a thing of the past. “It’s hard to pop a huge number with a really big, expensive box office champ,” he said. “The trick is buying the ones that repeat well. When a theatrical fits into the holiday season, people still like that tradition. `It’s a Wonderful Life’ never ceases to amaze me. I don’t think you can necessarily rely on movies, but they still on occasion can help the portfolio.”
Other sweeps highlights: “$25 Million Dollar Hoax” premiere; “Seinfeld” cast retrospective; the 100th “Fear Factor” episode; musical TV movie “A Christmas Carol”; Julianna Margulies on “Scrubs,” Jamie-Lynn DiScala on “Will & Grace” and Kelly Preston on “Joey.”
The goal: “We’re doing very little stunting at UPN,” Mr. Kahl said. “The best thing we can do for the shows is to put them on and leave them on.”
November can be more than just a drive for numbers and a time for networks to help build up shows lost in the flush of premieres that come earlier in the season, which in UPN’s case means paying more attention to its returning shows, particularly its urban comedies.
“We devoted a lot of time and attention to the newer shows and probably neglected our comedies a bit,” he said.
UPN’s tentpole special for November, “The Vibe Awards,” is more than just a parade of musical acts that appeals to many of network’s most loyal viewers. It is also a vehicle that helps drive the network brand, since one of UPN’s most prominent stars, “America’s Next Top Model” host and creator Tyra Banks, is scheduled to co-host.
“It did very well for us last year,” Mr. Kahl said. “It speaks to our audience and helps promote our other product.”
Despite special guest casting that includes everyone from former presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton to rapper Xzibit, Mr. Kahl said, UPN isn’t relying solely on unique faces to sell itself in November.
“Selectively, it can help,” Mr. Kahl said of special guest stars but noted that there’s another factor. “Stunt casting might be great for a week or two, but character and story are what bring people back.”
Other sweeps highlights: Brent Spiner on “Enterprise”; Debbie Allen on “All of Us”; Taye Diggs on “Top Model” and Kim Fields on “One on One”; and the 100th episode of “Girlfriends.”
The goal: “We try to really focus on remaining invested in our regular series and spice it up with guest stars,” said Rusty Mintz, senior VP of program scheduling and feature acquisitions for The WB.
In the case of Anne Heche and James Earl Jones, both of whom guest star on “Everwood,” Mr. Mintz said the network develops arcs that can carry viewers through multiple episodes and “not just as a one-off.” He described Charisma Carpenter and Kerr Smith’s guest roles on “Charmed” as part of the network’s strategy of “continuing to dip into our WB alumni pool.”
The big focus for November is what Mr. Mintz called “seminal moments” on the network’s most high-profile shows. On “One Tree Hill” Tree Hill High has its prom on a riverboat, while Ephram and Amy sleep together for the first time on “Everwood.” On “Jack & Bobby” Jack deals with a friend’s suicide, and on “7th Heaven” Lucy faces a health crisis during her pregnancy.
Specials may bring in a borrowed audience, but Mr. Mintz said keeping with a set schedule works when the network is dominated by character-driven shows that require regular viewing to keep up with story lines.
“The best thing we can do is not break the pattern,” he said.
That’s not to say the network has eschewed all big events. The two-night schedule for “The Lord of the Rings” on Sunday and Monday, plus the airing of the Mandy Moore feature “A Walk to Remember” on Nov. 24 are as big as they come for The WB. The network’s first TV movie, “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday,” based on the American Girl collection of dolls and books, airs Tuesday, Nov. 23, and will be repeated on Thanksgiving night. Mr. Mintz said he doesn’t see this scheduling as a break in The WB’s core November sweeps beliefs.
“We like to create events that attract attention,” he said. “We will do off the menu, and we are dedicated to those, but overall, it is about knowing what we do best.”
Other sweeps highlights: James Marsters on “The Mountain”; and LeAnn Rimes on “Blue Collar TV.”