Different Strokes: Networks' Sweeps Quirks
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/1/2004 7:00:00 PM
Like stressed-out people acting out in times of crisis, sweeps show what networks are really made of. CBS mainly sticks to its guns; NBC aggressively rearranges everything, schedule be damned. Fox goes for gimmicks, bringing in everything from "little people" to wild animals to big, fat, obnoxious ratings-getters. And ABC relies on familiar tricks, hoping that everything old will be new again.
During this month's sweeps, audiences will see a non-comedy program on NBC's must-see Thursday 8-10 p.m. lineup for the first time in 20 years, with The Apprentice moving to Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. On Feb. 10, the net's Thursday night will show up on Tuesday, with super-sized episodes of Friends, Will & Grace and Scrubs.
Rival network executives question NBC's scheduling moves, muttering about "viewer loyalty" and "schedule stability." Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, News and Cable, says that, if the shows are good, people will find them.
Take The Apprentice, Zucker told TV critics during last month's winter press tour. NBC promoted it for two weeks, and it opened to big ratings on a Thursday night.
While Zucker constantly tinkers with his schedule, CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves keeps his hands off, although he has been known to move top performer CSI to fill a hole or two. CBS's biggest show for sweeps is the 46th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 8. The network also hopes to score big ratings with Survivor: All-Stars and all-new episodes of CSI and CSI: Miami.
The big surprise—and risk—of the February sweeps is ABC's decision to return with a new version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire for one week at the end of the month. In 1999, the show launched the reality-TV craze, rapidly becoming the American Idol of its day. But the network killed the show by overexposing it. ABC still hasn't recovered.
This time around, the show has a new name—Super Millionaire— because contestants now are playing for $10 million, not $1 million. The show will air Sunday, Feb. 22 at 9 p.m., so as not to disturb The Practice at 10 p.m., and then will air on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of that week at 10 p.m. Regis Philbin again will host. This time, ABC promises it's a limited run.
Also, ABC has its annual Oscar telecast on Feb. 29, which ought to score big. Barbara Walters' annual pre-Oscar interview special may be more special now that she's cutting down her face time on ABC.
Fox has American Idol to carry it through February sweeps—and it shouldn't need anything else. But the network has several reality specials on tap, including a two-parter: The Littlest Groom, in which a 4-foot 5-inch man dates women his size, and then is surprised when women of average height are introduced into the mix. The show airs on two consecutive Mondays, Feb. 16 and 23, at 8 p.m., leading into My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.
"We're at the point now where I don't believe it's reality for the sake of reality," says Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning. "The mere fact that you put a reality show on doesn't mean it's going to work."
Still, it tends to work for Fox. After the network got no traction with scripted shows on Friday nights this fall, the night will be all-reality for Fox during February sweeps. The Great American Celebrity Spelling Bee will air at 8 p.m. on Feb. 13 and Feb. 20, concluding with a two-hour finale on Feb. 27. At 9 p.m., That's Just Wrong will air on Feb. 6, When Animals Attract (the opposite of the network's earlier controversial specials When Animals Attack) on Feb. 13, and Man vs. Beast 2 on Feb. 20.
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