Through the first two weeks of the November sweeps, CBS and ABC are proving that the strategy of primarily sticking with regular season series programming—rather than replacing it with splashy expensive stunting or specials—is the best way to draw viewers.
Relying mostly on its regularly scheduled series, CBS and ABC were deadlocked in delivery of adults 18-49, each producing a 4.5 rating in the demo during the sweeps. That's up 12 percent and 7 percent, respectively, compared to their season-to-date averages. And CBS was drawing an impressive 1.5 million more viewers per night, with ABC drawing 700,000 more during the sweeps.
Conversely, NBC, which has done a bit more stunting, was averaging the same 3.3 18-49 rating during the sweeps, as it has season-to-date. And NBC's decision to pull its two Sunday night dramas, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Crossing Jordan on Nov. 13 to air a Penn & Teller special and a Saturday Night Live retro clip show cost the network about 10 million viewers in the combined time periods. Even its airing of a live episode of The West Wing didn't prop up ratings that much. The Nov. 6 episode produced a 2.7 18-49 rating, up only a bit from 2.3 the week earlier.
Fox, which also did very little sweeps stunting through the first two weeks, is averaging an 18-49 rating of 3.0, 10 percent lower than its season rating in the demo. But that is largely because the regular season was bolstered by post-season baseball. Also, Fox delayed the premiere of more of its shows until November last year. Both the WB and UPN—again with minimal stunting—were producing the same ratings during the sweeps.
"The sweeps have been a non-event so far this year," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vp/director of Starcom Entertainment. "But from an advertiser perspective, the decision to run more shows in pattern is better. Advertisers like a minimal amount of stunting."
Lyle Schwartz, director of research and marketplace analysis at Mediaedge:cia, said less stunting means less preempting of programming that media agencies bought for their clients during the upfront. "Many advertisers don't benefit from sweeps specials, which are only announced a few weeks before they air and they aren't part of their packages. [Sweeps stunts] give the networks a false bump in the ratings, but it means nothing to some advertisers."
Steve Sternberg, executive vp and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA, said the move to do less sweeps stunting also has been driven by the close ratings races among the Big Four networks. "The networks need to get a handle on which shows are working [for the duration of the season] and which aren't," he said.
That's exactly what CBS did by testing a move of its struggling freshman drama, Close to Home, from Tuesday at 10 p.m. to Friday at 9 p.m. In the first week in its new time period on Nov. 10, the show picked up 2 million more viewers on a night of low TV watching overall. "We're always going to try to get some big events in during sweeps, but if you can create those without disrupting the flow pattern for your regular viewers, that is a win-win," said David Poltrack, executive vp, planning and research at CBS. "Continuity is what helps build strong program franchises. And to the extent we can, we avoid pulling shows for stunts."
Sweeps may also be heading toward less importance as the number of markets that get Nielsen Media Research local people meters grows. Right now, local TV viewing in seven of the nation's top TV markets is measured with LPMs on a year-round basis, eliminating the need for sweeps ratings results. "As LPMs are rolled out, the value of sweeps ratings for many of the stations, primarily the networks' owned-and-operated stations, diminish," Schwartz said. "However, there are still several hundred markets where sweeps will still be important."