Sweeping Changes: Nets Approach Nov. Differently

With at least five major cities using local people meters—New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco—the value of network sweeps continues to erode for stations. So does that of network bragging rights in these artificially constructed ratings periods.

That said, the upcoming November sweeps (Nov. 2-30) looks like a tough one to call. Competing for first place in delivery of adults 18-49 are CBS and ABC. As of last week, ABC led CBS season-to-date by two-tenths of a ratings point, averaging a 4.2 in the demographic.

On a separate tier are Fox and NBC, the latter which led by a tenth of a ratings point, averaging a 3.3 in the demo, as of last week.

Acknowledging the diminished power of sweeps, broadcasters increasingly are relying on regularly scheduled programming for the period. “Our focus remains on continuing to establish our new series, while making sure our hit series are doing as well as they can,” said Jeff Bader, executive vp at ABC Entertainment.

Of course, sprinkled into its schedule are several key events, including the American Music Awards on Nov. 22, a Kenny Chesney special on Nov. 23, and a Barbara Walters special on Nov. 29.

CBS events include the Country Music Awards on Nov. 15, and the disaster miniseries Category 7: The End of the World on Nov. 6 and 13. CBS traditionally has run its two-parters over the course of one week—Sundays and Wednesdays. But with improved ratings for its Wednesday night lineup, not to mention the sweeps battle against ABC, it’s no surprise that CBS altered that strategy, airing each of the two parts on consecutive Sundays.

“What can help you win in the end is what you’re doing in time periods against strong shows at the other networks,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS executive vice president of program planning and scheduling.

Not to be outdone, ABC has scheduled Disney movies Pirates of the Caribbean on Nov. 3 and Finding Nemo on Nov. 24, both of which will air opposite CBS’ dominant Thursday night lineup.

Meanwhile, Fox is well aware it can only vie for third or fourth place in November without American Idol and 24. But with pre-baseball ratings up versus last year, when it suffered from an over-reliance on non-scripted programs, executives there believe a return to scripted series during sweeps at least will give it a boost.

“The focus for us is on where we were last year versus this year, and our hope is to show more growth than any other network,” said Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic program planning at Fox.

A deflated NBC—the network perhaps most notorious for stunting during sweeps—said it too is committed to its regular schedule.

“When you’re No. 1, you do everything you can to defend that position. But we’re in a different era,” noted Mitch Metcalf, NBC Universal’s executive vice president of program planning and scheduling. “We’re trying not to make last-minute moves, understanding that sampling can occur throughout the fourth quarter.”