Few Stunts for Sweeps

Oct 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

For November, the tried and true trumps the flash in the pan.

As they did last November, the six major broadcast networks are again eschewing the once-popular stunts that characterized ratings periods in the past and keeping their schedules intact for the November sweeps. The ratings period is likely to exemplify the programming strategies employed by the networks so far this season, in which competition among the networks in the adults 18 to 49 demographic continues to be exceptionally fierce.

While all the broadcasters will at some point during the sweeps trot out special events such as concerts, clip shows, awards broadcasts and feature film premieres, the bulk of the network schedules will feature regularly scheduled series. The November sweeps begin Thursday and

run through Nov. 30.

Of all the sweeps periods, November is the most likely to reflect a traditional schedule, since networks are still evaluating new series, said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS and UPN.

“You’re still kind of nurturing it,” Mr. Kahl said. “In that sense we’re trying to do as little stunting as we can.”

Making too many radical schedule changes is a risk networks are unlikely to take, especially with the competition so tight in the demo. But the season’s performance so far is likely to dictate how all the networks will do in November, said

Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research for Fox.

“The sweeps will probably reflect the order things are now,” Mr. Beckman said. “ABC has a shot of winning it; CBS will come in second; and we’ll duke it out with NBC for third.”

Indeed, the sticking-to-the-schedule strategy is stacking up to work particularly well for ABC, the top-rated network season to date in adults 18 to 49 through last Wednesday, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s because ABC’s current ratings performance is being fueled by regular series such as “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” said Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment.

“We’re in the fortunate place where our biggest events are our series,” Mr. Bader said.

February ‘An Aberration’

If this November is reflective of a more typical schedule, the next sweeps period, February 2006, will be decidedly atypical due to NBC’s broadcast of the Winter Olympics from Turin, Italy, and ABC’s telecast of the Super Bowl.

February sweeps “is going to be admittedly an aberration,” Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for NBC Entertainment, said, but one he can definitely live with, since the games are usually a big draw for viewers.

“I’m happy to have the Olympics,” he added.

But NBC’s expected gain in February may not necessarily be a loss for every other network, Rusty Mintz, senior VP of program scheduling and feature acquisitions, said.

“You look at each sweeps and treat it as its own individual measuring period,” Mr. Mintz said. “There are different opportunities and challenges in each case. Sometimes the Olympics is an opportunity.”

Sweeps are used by local stations to set advertising rates. The ratings periods’ relevancy has been put into question by the rollout of Nielsen’s Local People Meters. Some argue the LPM technology introduced to replace the old handwritten diary system (which originated in the Eisenhower era) renders the sweeps concept obsolete.

But for now, the traditional diary method is still firmly in place, since only seven markets are using the new LPMs, Mr. Metcalf said.

“That process is still in the evolutionary phase,” he said. “We’re just starting to crack the top 10 [markets]. Until we really get to the top 25 or so, the sweeps still have a critical significance to the vast majority of stations and, therefore, the network.”

Until then, the highly unusual practice of having all-original product appearing on every network at the same time during sweeps will continue, Mr. Kahl said.

“I don’t think it’s changing the way we schedule,” he said. “Clearly, the stations benefit from getting more timely information. It’s an early step in reducing the overall importance of these sweeps.”