November 2006 is shaping up to be a watershed for the broadcast networks.
With November sweeps under way, The CW and MyNetworkTV get their first crack at helping their station affiliates across the country determine their potential on a local level.
What’s more, last Thursday, the first night of the sweeps, ABC proved that its new series “Ugly Betty” is working-as is its move of “Grey’s Anatomy” from Sunday to Thursday this season. The network won the night among adults 18 to 49, earning its first victory in the demographic on an opening night of a November sweeps in more than 15 years-since Nielsen started its database.
Meanwhile, Fox’s perpetual fall road bumps continued with “The O.C.” premiering to a record low, leaving The CW to move up and take fourth place due to “Smallville’s” pulling its largest audience since its season premiere.
That’s a good start for The CW, which along with MyNetworkTV is entering its first sweeps period.
The CW and MyNetworkTV launched in September, both with promises of bringing new programming value primarily to stations formerly affiliated with The WB or UPN.
So far The CW has matched the draw the two former networks accomplished individually. But it has fallen short of hopes that combining the best programming from UPN and The WB would result in racking up the equivalent of UPN’s and The WB’s former viewers combined. For its first six weeks on the air, The CW has averaged a 1.5 rating among adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research.
MyNetworkTV’s unique Monday-through-Friday telenovela block has struggled to find an audience, pulling a 0.4 in the demo for the same period.
Stations use sweeps periods to set their advertising rates. Though station owners have an idea of what to expect based on standard ratings, sweeps periods are still key, especially for getting a clear idea of the two new networks’ draw on a market-by-market level, according to Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV Group.
“It’s important for both channels because, realistically, most stations are looking at the metered-market performance but don’t have a handle on their own market performance,” Mr. Carroll said. “So for a lot of markets it will be their first look at how they’re doing. It’s a good first indicator of market performance.”
Media consultant Rusty Mintz said sweeps is an antiquated model for setting ratings, yet is unquestionably important-especially for the new networks.
“For both The CW and MyNetwork, sweeps are going to be extremely important because so much of their sales pitch, their reason to be, is station-driven,” he said. “Sweeps shadows to a large extent how the affiliates will continue supporting networks through promotion and new show launches. Given that there’s been radical change in business, from the affiliate perspective this period will be under a microscope.”
The CW and MyNetworkTV are not making loud moves to draw viewers during November. The CW has lined up a few guest stars for its series, such as Jason Alexander on “Everybody Hates Chris,” Linda Blair on “Supernatural” and Patty Hearst on “Veronica Mars.” MyNetworkTV is expected to continue its current programming course, which calls for its next set of telenovelas to launch in December.
“Because we’re original 52 weeks a year, we’re not loading up all our best programming in sweeps and going to repeats,” said Jack Abernethy, CEO of Fox Television Stations, who oversees MyNetworkTV. “The nonsweeps months are actually more important. People want to turn on their sets and have good programming on every night.”
Executives of The CW declined to comment, though a network spokesperson said several series have shown week-to-week ratings growth this season.
Mr. Carroll said the channels are correct to avoid the attention-getting stunts of the established broadcasters.
“MyNet has their plan, they can only promote, promote, promote,” he said. “The backbone of CW is regularly scheduled programming, and the only true gauge is going to be for those shows. They’re both early in the game and need to establish themselves before they try to do something different.”
As important as the sweeps period may be, the networks are only about two months old. Mr. Carroll noted that stations should “not react to a single sweeps.” After all, there’s always another one right around the corner.
Season to date, ABC has been firmly leading the broadcast pack among the 18 to 49 demographic, followed by CBS and NBC in a tight race for second, then Fox and The CW.
For the first night of sweeps last Thursday, many shows seemed to dip under the weight of the collective competition. ABC won the evening despite “Grey’s Anatomy” (9.0) and “Six Degrees” (3.2) posting their lowest ratings of the season, while “Ugly Betty” was on par (4.4) with its performances so far.
CBS finished second, though “CSI” matched its lowest original of the season (6.9) and “Shark” posted its lowest rating to date (3.7).
Third-place NBC bucked the downward trend with “Deal or No Deal” enjoying its highest Thursday rating of the season (4.6), while “ER” (5.6), “My Name Is Earl” (4.1) and “The Office” (4.2) were about on par.
Fox had a disappointing season debut for “The O.C.” (1.5), with freshman comedies `”Til Death” (1.7) and “Happy Hour” (1.4) struggling as well. The fourth quarter tends to challenge Fox as the network finishes up baseball and has to relaunch much of its schedule.