The broadcast networks are pulling out all the stops to drive ratings during the upcoming February sweeps, with specials and original episodes of all the top shows.
But most of them plan to take off a day or two, notably Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 6. The big game, which typically takes place in late January, falls on the first Sunday of sweeps this winter. During last week’s Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, ABC, CBS and NBC admitted they have effectively thrown in the towel, putting up schedules that look more suitable for a Friday in the dead of summer than for the first Sunday in sweeps.
CBS, for example, will air stalwart “60 Minutes” at 7 p.m. but then follow it with crime drama repeats. “NCIS” goes on at 8 p.m., “Cold Case” airs at 9 p.m. and “Without a Trace” closes the night at 10 p.m.
Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group, said that with that kind of competition, it’s better to take a more philosophical approach in the otherwise competitive sweeps period.
“The Super Bowl, the Oscars-there are certain things you’ve got to say, look, you’re going to do some counterprogramming, but there is only so much you can do,” she told TelevisionWeek last week at a party CBS and UPN threw for critics during the press tour. “There is no way when you’re dealing with the Super Bowl, and it’s, what, a 50 share? Be respectful of it, and do the best you can to keep the lights on. You’ve got to accept what happens and take the hit that night.”
The Super Bowl first slid into the February sweeps in 2002, when the league moved the start of its season from Labor Day to a week later. That year 50 percent of the programming on competing networks was original, compared with 11 percent during the January 2001 game.
In 2003 the league tried to put the game back in January by cutting the off-week between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl, but this year, the week off was reinstated.
The big game will be played in February for the next few years. The 2005 Super Bowl is scheduled for Feb. 5 in Detroit, 2006 will be Feb. 4 in Miami, and 2007 is set for Feb. 3 in Arizona.
When one is forced to work around an 800-pound programming gorilla like the Super Bowl, it’s also the perfect time to downplay sweeps in terms of the network’s overall ratings. Ms. Tellem said CBS has a long-term perspective when it comes to ratings that go beyond November, February and May.
“The reality is we’re looking at really performing week in and week out,” she said. “Sweeps are important, but I think it’s less important than it was before. We want to win every week.”
CBS can afford to take a longer view. It is on a roll with the key 18 to 49 demo. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, however, all are within tenths of ratings points in the demo. So at a minimum, bragging rights are at stake for the Big 4.
For Fox, which is airing the Super Bowl this year, the benefits go far beyond the usual opportunity to promote midseason shows and charge advertisers sky-high premiums. Fox has been scoring a recent ratings comeback with the return of drama “24” and reality hit “American Idol” and now will get an extra boost in the February sweeps, which run from Thursday, Feb. 3, to Wednesday, March 2.
The Feb. 6 Super Bowl not only gives Fox an ensured and comprehensive win for at least one night without wasting the best of its regularly scheduled series programming it also takes a solid win away from one of its competitors-ABC.
Sunday has been a good night for ABC, thanks to the top-rated drama “Desperate Housewives” at 9 p.m. (ET) and solid performance from both its lead-in (“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) and its lead-out (“Boston Legal”). But ABC has decided to forgo original programming Feb. 6 for repeats and pre-emptions. Starting at 7 p.m. ABC will run two episodes of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” move a repeat of “Home Edition” to 9 p.m. and move “Housewives” to 10 p.m. “Boston Legal” will get the bench for the night.
An ABC executive declined comment on scheduling against the Super Bowl. The network will have its own signature event later in the month, when it airs “The 77th Annual Academy Awards” Sunday, Feb. 27. If the weak Jan. 16 performance of the Golden Globes on NBC is an indicator of the Oscar telecast’s ratings potential, ABC executives will be longing for a Sunday night return to “Housewives”‘ Wisteria Lane. The NBC telecast was the lowest-rated Golden Globes show in the history of its run on broadcast television.
NBC is also going the repeat route Feb. 6, aside from relying on an original episode of newsmagazine “Dateline” at 7 p.m. A franchise marathon follows, with “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” at 8 p.m., “Law & Order” at 9 p.m. and “Law & Order: SVU” at 10 p.m.
Jon Lafayette contributed to this report.