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Sweeps Packed With Big Events

Feb 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Big programming events are shaking up broadcasters’ schedules during the February sweeps, most notably NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympic Games. But even with the once-every-four-years event, NBC appears unlikely to score a ratings gold medal for 2005-06 as CBS, ABC and Fox head for what could well be a photo finish for the season’s top spot in adults 18 to 49.

While CBS is airing the Grammy Awards and ABC has the Super Bowl during the February sweeps, NBC is covering the 20th Olympic Winter Games, from Turin, Italy, for 17 days starting Feb. 10. For years telecasts of the Olympics have almost always been a ratings blockbuster for NBC. But this year increased competition from rivals, particularly Fox’s music competition “American Idol,” has thrown out the assumption that NBC will walk away with the sweeps ratings crown.

“NBC, who needs a lot of help, is going to get it with the Olympics, although I don’t think it is going to do gangbusters as in other years,” said Jon Cogan, associate media director for Zenith Media Services, noting that four years ago the Olympics took place on U.S. soil, in Salt Lake City. When the Olympics are held in North America more events are aired live, or close to live, which helps ratings, Mr. Cogan said.

Furthermore, the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were held less than six months after 9/11, and the viewing audience was still riding high on patriotism, Mr. Cogan said. But even if Turin does not draw the viewership Salt Lake City enjoyed, NBC will benefit from increased ratings.

“It’s not going to do as strong as 2002, but its going to help them, because they are struggling,” he said of NBC.

For now, the network to beat during sweeps is Fox. “Idol” premiered Jan. 17 to its highest debut ratings in the demo ever, despite being in its fifth season. In addition, “Idol’s” Tuesday night episode was the highest-rated program in adults 18 to 49 for the weeks ended Jan. 22 and Jan. 29.

Coming into the sweeps, ABC is the season-to-date leader in adults 18 to 49 with a 4.0 rating through Jan. 29, according to Nielsen Media Research. Following closely in second place is CBS with a 3.9, with Fox (3.5) and NBC (3.1) trailing behind.

The competition for the top spot in the demo for the season is only going to get tougher as the sweeps progresses, said Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat.

“Right now you’re looking at a three-way race,” Ms. Brill said. “It’s very tight between CBS and ABC. ABC is slightly ahead, but the Olympics won’t even bring NBC into the race. It could once again be Fox edging them out because of ‘American Idol,’ ‘Prison Break’ and ’24.'”

If 2004-05 is a guide, Fox can make up the difference with its midseason offerings to take the No. 1 spot in the demo for the season. But the overall impact of February sweeps goes far beyond the results of the specific four-week ratings period or even the season-to-date ratings, according to John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for ad agency Campbell Mithun.

“What will be most important is not how this will be looked at as a sweeps month, because the special programming makes it unique, but how many younger viewers ‘American Idol’ can pull from the Olympics,” he said, adding, “It’s imperative that NBC bring in a new generation to pay off their Olympics investment.”

Also part of the February sweeps dynamic will be NBC’s ability to launch new programming and promote its series to the increased audience tuned in to the Olympics, Mr. Rash said, something the network was unable to do coming out of the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

“Equally as important is the degree to which NBC can reposition itself post-Olympics, which will be important not only for the rest of the season but for their new schedule come next fall,” he said.

Looking at its sweeps schedule, Fox is not afraid to take on even the Olympics’ most popular events, Ms. Brill said. On Feb. 23, for example, the network has scheduled a special Thursday night “Idol” to compete directly with NBC’s scheduled telecast of the most popular Olymic event, the ladies’ figure skating finals.

“They are really taking them on,” Ms. Brill said of Fox. “It’s very aggressive but very smart.”

But at the end of the sweeps, all of the broadcast networks are likely to come out winners, since the most sought-after TV programming, from the top Olympic moments to the winning touchdown to the most heartfelt ballads, are on over-the-air broadcast, Mr. Cogan said.

“It’s great for network television,” he said. “The fact that these high-profile events are going to draw big audiences bodes well for the broadcasters.”