Networks’ 4-Way Dash to the Finish

Apr 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In theory, networks shouldn’t be all that concerned when it comes to sweeps.

Yes, sweeps are crucial for owned-and-operated stations and network affiliates in setting their advertising rates. And yes, strong prime-time programming can only help stations’ late local news and various dayparts. But for the networks the sweeps are mostly useful for bragging rights.

This year, however, the networks’ performance in May sweeps, which runs from April 28 through May 25, will decide who will take the No. 1 title in the advertiser-friendly adults 18 to 49 demographic.

As of April 17 Fox holds the season lead in adults 18 to 49 with a 4.1 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. Just one-tenth of a rating behind is CBS with a 4.0, followed by ABC (3.8), NBC (3.6) and The WB and UPN (both 1.4).

“I’d be a liar if I said the season turned out exactly as I predicted,” said Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for once dominant NBC, which at this point last season was in first place in the demo with a 4.2. “It’s amazing to see where we are, where just a few tenths of a percent separate first and fourth place.”

In a marketplace where the No. 1- and No. 4-rated network in adults 18 to 49 are so close in parity, sweeps scheduling takes on new meaning, since one disastrous night or one brilliant stroke of programming can make a dominant network. But for ABC, currently in third place in the demo, even being competitive this season after last season’s distant fourth-place finish is a win in itself.

“We just want to continue the success we’ve had all season,” said Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment. “We love our double-digit increases. Everyone’s going to be close, which for us is a victory. We weren’t in the game at all last year.”

Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research, said the end-of-the-season outcome may be something never before seen since the advent of people meters-a tie between two networks, most likely Fox and CBS, for the top spot in the demo.

“We’ll be duking it out with CBS for adults 18 to 49 right through May sweeps,” Mr. Beckman said. “Both for CBS and us this is a major success story.”

For Fox, which last week was leading the pack in the season-to-date demo average, the fact that it is competitive despite a spate of programming misfires at the beginning of the season is due to the performance of “American Idol” as well as its new medical drama “House” and the rescheduled “24” on Mondays.

“If you go back and look at the stuff that was written about us in October and November, a lot of people who write about the business wrote us off,” he said.

CBS, which has touted itself for years as the dominant network in total viewers and the older-skewing demo of adults 25 to 54, is now enjoying success in adults 18 to 49.

Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS and UPN, said gunning for first place in the demo “is a real bonus for us.”

Even if Fox takes the season in adults 18 to 49, Mr. Kahl said, CBS is primed to do better when it comes to the advertiser upfronts in May.

“We certainly hope this is going to translate to a much improved position,” he said. “In terms of regularly scheduled programming we are No. 1 in adults 18 to 49, and the most dominant in adults 18 to 49 with Thursday. Clearly we are hoping to see a real shift in terms of advertiser dollars.”

Despite some notable special programs, including two Dr. Phil McGraw specials, an Elvis Presley miniseries and a TV movie profiling Amber Frey, who dated convicted murderer Scott Peterson, Mr. Kahl said CBS is sticking with its series.

“We tend to keep the schedule as stable as possible,” he said. “You do have a little more stunting toward the end of sweeps as series conclude.”

That doesn’t mean CBS

is averse to last-minute changes. Initially CBS was planning to run the TV movie “Martha: Behind Bars,” which profiles Martha Stewart’s incarceration, on Wednesday, May 25, but decided to hold “Martha” until the fall. Instead the Amber Frey biopic has been moved from Sunday, May 22, to the “Martha” spot.

Mr. Kahl chalked up the “Martha” move to the fact that Ms. Stewart will launch two shows in fall 2005, something on which CBS hopes to capitalize.

“There is going to be a lot of natural attention, which will make promoting the movie a lot easier,” he said.

CBS may have another reason for making the scheduling change. The network will run reruns of “CSI” and “CSI: Miami” May 22 instead, keeping the Amber Frey project clear of the “Desperate Housewives” finale, which is scheduled for the same night.

Both ABC and Fox will be relying at least partially on feature films, a sweeps staple. Although ABC has been consistently programming features on Saturdays, this sweeps the network is taking a chance by putting two female friendly movies on Thursday-“Sweet Home Alabama” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”-with the hopes of recapturing an audience of young women once addicted to NBC’s former Thursday night linchpin “Friends.”

“The ratings points haven’t gone to other networks,” Mr. Bader said of the “Friends” audience. “It’s going to be interesting to see how these movies do with women who were specifically watching NBC last year.”

Mr. Beckman said Fox is also taking a chance this sweeps with the relaunch of the once-canceled animated series “Family Guy.” After strong sales of “Family Guy” DVDs, Fox opted to produce new episodes of the series, with the hopes of building a new television audience from fans who never watched the show when it first aired. Fox also is launching “American Dad,” another animated series from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane.

“We’ll find out if we’re right or wrong,” he said of the May debuts. “We could be totally delusional, but we think the anticipation of new episodes [of ‘Family Guy’] has gone beyond cult status at this point. I generally sleep well when we make big, wild moves, but I don’t think I’m going to get a lot of sleep that night.”

May Sweeps Highlights

ABC:“Sweet Home Alabama” gets its broadcast premiere April 28. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” airs April 30, while the network debut of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” airs May 7. “Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition” walks down the aisle May 9. Jennifer Garner directs the May 11 episode of “Alias,” guest starring Joel Gray and Amy Irving. An NBA playoff game airs May 14. Ashanti stars as Dorothy in “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” May 20. Alfre Woodard joins the cast of “Desperate Housewives” for the show’s season finale May 22. The TV Movie “Trump Unauthorized” profiling the rise of Donald Trump premieres May 24. The castaways try to open the mysterious hatch on the season finale of “Lost” May 25.

CBS: The Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie “Riding the Bus With My Sister,” starring Rosie O’Donnell, airs May 1. Dr. Phil McGraw gets prime-time specials May 4 and May 20. “Amazing Race 7” concludes May 10. The miniseries “Elvis” airs May 8 and May 11, followed by the documentary “Elvis by the Presleys” May 13. The “Survivor: Palau” finale and a live “Survivor” reunion show air May 15. A one-hour “Everybody Loves Raymond” retrospective airs on May 16 at 8 p.m., followed by “Raymond’s” series finale. The Academy of Country Music Awards airs May 17, followed by the Daytime Emmys on May 20. The TV movie “Amber Frey: Witness for the Prosecution” premieres May 25.

NBC: Lee Majors guest stars on “Will & Grace” April 28, while Sandra Bernhard reprises her guest role as Det. Framus on “Crossing Jordan” May 1. May 3 marks “Law & Order”/ “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” crossover episodes. “Third Watch” series finale airs May 6. Three-hour TV movie “Hercules” airs May 16. “Revelations” wraps up its six-episode run on May 18. A new “Apprentice” is hired May 19, while Noah Wyle works his last shift on the “ER” season finale. On May 23, newlyweds battle it out on
the “Fear Factor” season finale while Jon Bon Jovi and Gladys Knight guest star in the season finale of “Las Vegas.” A final “Contender” is crowned champ May 24 in a two-hour special.

Fox: During sweeps Friday night is movie night with “Spider-Man” (April 29), “Rush Hour 2” (May 6), “X-Men” (May 13) and “Shallow Hal” (May 20). “Cops” runs its 600th episode April 30. On May 1 Fox airs the 350th episode of “The Simpsons,” the return of “Family Guy” and the series premiere of the animated “American Dad.” “2005 Nascar Nextel Cup” drives in May 7. Sela Ward guest stars on “House” May 17 and May 24. The special “American Idol: International Best of the Worst” airs May 19. “Star Wars: episode II: Attack of the Clones” has its broadcast premiere May 22. A new “American Idol” is crowned in a two-hour episode May 25.

UPN: On “All of Us,” Paula Abdul guest stars on May 3, while Mary Hart appears as herself on May 10. Toni Braxton and “Top Model” Eva Pigford guest star on “Kevin Hill” May 4. Lilly Kane’s murderer is revealed on the May 10 “Veronica Mars.” “Star Trek: Enterprise” ends its voyage with a two-episode series finale May 13. Britney Spears and husband Kevin Federline premiere their new reality series with a one-hour episode May 17. The fourth “America’s Next Top Model” is chosen May 18. Blair Underwood guest stars on “Half & Half” May 23. Jenny McCarthy’s comedy “Bad Girl’s Guide” debuts May 24, while hip-hop artist Ludacris guest stars on “Eve.”

The WB: “Blue Collar TV” comedian Ron White gets a half-hour comedy special April 28, followed by the one-hour renovation special “Mobile Home Disaster.” Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Robbins and Gore Vidal guest star on the May 11 season finale of “Jack & Bobby.” The May 18 season finale of “Smallville” previews eight minutes of footage from the feature film “Batman Begins.” Treat Williams’ character Andy considers a move to Chicago in the May 23 season finale of “Everwood.” The two-hour May 24 season finale of “One Tree Hill” features musical guest Jimmy Eat World.