News

This sweeps month is nothing special

David Bianculli
New York Daily News

It wasn't too long ago that ratings sweeps months - those times set aside in February, May and November for networks to set advertising rates for the coming quarter - were hugely competitive blood sports.

This month, except for a few music specials on NBC and Fox's O.J. Simpson sitdown, it's hard to tell a sweeps month is here at all.

In other words, the whole idea of sweeps programming has been disbanded.

Movies, miniseries and specials used to be pervasive in sweeps, when presenting the exceptional was the norm.

"The Day After" aired during sweeps. So did "Lonesome Dove" and "Winds of War," "Gulliver's Travels" and all those Carol Burnett specials.

But now, miniseries made by the commercial broadcast networks basically don't exist, and the only movies being made - usually outside of sweeps - are tacky trash tossaways like NBC's "Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of `Diff'rent Strokes.'"

For specials, NBC has an old-fashioned Tony Bennett special Tuesday and a diluted, crucifixion-free Madonna special on Wednesday.

And that's about it.

One reason sweeps specials aren't what they used to be is that the compilation of ratings for sweeps isn't what it used to be, either. Technological changes in the way ratings are compiled - more samples, faster results - have made the sweeps, especially in the major cities, less important.

In theory, that means the networks don't have to stockpile all their big-ticket items for sweeps months, and can show them all year-round.

Or the networks can go in another direction - the road they chose to take - and essentially stop making miniseries and telemovies at all.

Instead, for sweeps in the 21st century, we get the same old, same old. We get fresh episodes of weekly series, served up as a special treat, rather than what should be expected.

We get shows like "3 Lbs." and "Day Break," new weekly series meant to replace fall shows that failed, or hold the places for ones that succeeded, but are vanishing for months anyway.

And most of all, we get instant quiz and competition shows. Shows like "The Rich List" on Fox, rejected so forcefully by viewers that it was canceled after only one showing. And last week's "Show Me the Money" on ABC, which showed us that William Shatner's willingness to embarrass himself beyond belief didn't end with his vocal rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

This isn't programming fit for sweeps. It's programming fit to be swept - under the rug.

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