A few weeks ago, CBS was castigated by conservatives for scheduling The Reagans,
then lambasted by liberals for canceling it. Then last week, Michael Jackson, who was to be celebrated on a Nov. 26 CBS special, was arrested on several counts of child molestation, and that ratings-rich plan for the last night of sweeps was swept right down the public-relations rat hole.
But you know what? This has probably been the greatest sweeps month for CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves since he joined the network in 1995.
CBS is the only broadcast network to see year-to-year growth in viewers and demographics in the November sweeps: 10% in viewers, 2% in adults 18-49 and 6% in adults 25-54. What's more, archrival NBC is down substantially in most categories, making the CBS performance sweeter still.
November has made CBS executives positively giddy. Earlier this month, after NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker offhandedly remarked that a lot of fall's new shows "sucked," CBS put out a press release titled "CBS: Our Shows Don't Suck." (It rated its handout TV-14-L.)
As for the Jackson arrest last week, well, that's show business. "It's bad timing," said Steve Sternberg, director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA, in a pleasantly obvious understatement. "Last year, Michael Jackson was all over the sweeps. This year, no one expected this to happen. You can't blame CBS for this one."
Nor is CBS likely to be hurt because of it. It's sticking an episode of CSI
in place of the Jackson special, and, wherever that drama goes, fans seem to follow. That's the same thing CBS did when conservatives complained that The Reagans
took unfair potshots at the former president. Moonves yanked it, claiming the miniseries lacked appropriate balance.
Moonves must have known he was going to get pounded for The Reagans, but, even given the past strangeness of The Gloved One, he couldn't have been prepared for the Jackson flap last week. "I wouldn't want to be poor Les,'' said one industry observer. "Just after CBS went through the Reagan thing, then all of the sudden there's the Michael Jackson controversy.
"At a time when he should be celebrating," the source continued, "he's faced with difficult and perplexing situations. Ultimately, he made the right decisions. We will continue as an industry to debate the decision on The Reagans, but I don't think anyone calls into question the Michael Jackson decision."
Even CBS's Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, broadcast last week and garnering mediocre ratings against ABC's finale of The Bachelor, got its share of scrutiny. Last week, CNN ran a piece focusing on the complaints of family groups, such as the Parents Television Council, which also voiced concerns the prior two years.
"I didn't think anything could top the summer of 2000, when Survivor
premiered, for press intensity and overall craziness," said Chris Ender, senior vice president of communications for CBS Entertainment. "Now that feels like a fun thunderstorm compared to the hurricane of November."
CBS's various ups and downs have somewhat eclipsed the November sweeps performances of the other networks, but CBS executives might actually want it that way.
In the all-important 18-49 demographic, NBC is down 14% year-to-year, the most of any of the Big Four networks. But NBC is hanging on to the demo lead and cruising toward a November sweeps win.
ABC has declined 10% but has had some bright spots. Several of its comedies hit season highs, its two Diane Sawyer news specials were the highest-rated news events of the season in the demo, and the finale of The Bachelor
was the second-highest-rated so far.
Fox has descended 9% year-to-year in adults 18-49 and is eagerly awaiting the return of American Idol
in January. The WB is down most dramatically, with a 19% plunge; UPN has decreased 11%.