Event programming is swept under the rug


The calendar tells us that because it's May, it must be sweeps time in television land. But you're excused if you hadn't noticed, particularly in primetime. Fox has the staggering 400th episode of "The Simpsons" this month as well as the countdown to the "American Idol" finale -- which is as close to a sacred national trust as TV has (surpassing even the Super Bowl). But the pickings are mighty slim everywhere else you look.

I mean, the 100th episode of NBC's "Deal or No Deal"? The one-season-too-late series finale of "Gilmore Girls" on the CW? Farewell to "The King of Queens"? Big whoop.

Whatever happened to the Big Event? Where are the "Lonesome Doves," the latest cheesy Jackie Collins trash wallow, Oprah Winfrey guesting on a very special "Two and a Half Men"? All we ask is something -- anything -- with William Devane, Jane Seymour, Armand Assante.

Forget it. They're nowhere to be found, just like sweeps as we once knew it. Replacing stunt casting and high-profile movies and miniseries is a giant helping of business as usual. Once, it would have been unthinkable to toss reruns into sweeps. It's now such a low priority for the networks that they can't motivate themselves to pre-plan, so they run low on fresh episodes at a time when it once mattered most.

It's now all but official that as a broadcast network phenomenon, sweeps is dead. Instead of steadfastly inflated quality, we get a TV season that winds down with scarcely a whimper. The culprit: technology.

You see, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and the CW now access their demographic ratings 52 weeks a year with the introduction a few years back of Local People Meter audience measurement devices in a large number of markets. With it, the entire motivation the networks once had to glean useful demo data for their local stations during the four-week sweeps period disappeared. Poof!

"Big events also no longer specifically help local stations and affiliates in terms of gathering ratings numbers to sell moving forward," says Preston Beckman, Fox Broadcasting executive vp for strategic program planning and research. "For the same reason, we don't have to be afraid to plug holes with repeats in May."

Beckman doesn't mourn the quiet dissolution of the onetime sweeps model of packing one's schedule with higher-profile elements so as to help your affiliates get a viewership bounce. He sees it as more or less a natural evolution.

"Five years from now, you may be writing that the majority of series viewing isn't on the actual network anymore," he suspects. "With all of the options now, we're not so far from the day when a TV show will be evaluated on its cumulative performance over all of the available platforms rather than just the traditional mode."

I always thought that the driving motivation behind sweeps was a little bit nonsensical, since supersizing your programming to set future ad rates during times when the playing field is more level strikes me as equivalent to gearing up for marriage by buying a hamster. Yet nutty as it was, I still miss it. There was a certain quaint self-delusion to the whole enterprise.

Local newscasts are pretty much the last refuge of sweepstime madness. This month, for instance, you can find out "The Truth About Diet Myths," why "Dental Visits Are Important For Your Health" (could it be ... because good teeth are healthier than bad teeth?) and how to "Maximize Your Cell Phone Battery." It's heartening to know someone still embraces sweeps in all of its simplistic glory.