Wednesday, November 30, 2005

November Sweeps Programming Tactical Errors Leaves Some Casualties

As network November sweeps comes to a close, some clear winners and losers emerged. Most notably, CBS once again proved their strong position in decision making and good inclinations in programming and tended to improve their ratings position somewhat. However, NBC managed a number of tactical programming errors that put their network at a ratings disadvantage.

NBC aired a magic program with Penn & Teller and also a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE history of the 1980's program. Both were decent programs, yet both turned in dismal ratings, especially the Penn & Teller program. And a mostly unfufilling remake of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, with a host of has-been personalities who have recently found work in acting gigs hard to come by, were recruited for this movie remake misadventure. Steve Guttenberg, of POLICE ACADEMY films, Rutger Hauer, former action film star, Peter Weller, far better off in the first two ROBOCOP films, were used in this made for TV remake that despite a three hour TV running time, managed to leave so many holes in the story that one really had to see the Irwin Allen original big screen movie in order to draw much sense or meaning or some of the scenes. Every dramatic moment from the original film managed to lose something in this remake, including the heart attack death of the elderly Jewish widow who manages to establish an underwater safety route for the survivors. In the first film, this was an important scene of survival and the death a major character that was dramaticly developed in the film. In this version, the scene almost completely failed to leave much of an impression, although it should have been an important incident involving what should have been a major character, if the chatracter would have been as well developed as the orginal role by Shelley Winters in the original Irwin Allen film. And although Rutger Hauer is a very good actor, he managed to uninspire in Gene Hackman's role as a minister wrestling with issues of faith who became a Moseslike figure who would lead a group of survivors to rescue.

The lessons in these NBC failures is very clear. Magic shows, Penn & Teller, TV movies and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE specials are fine, but prempting good reliable ratings solid programming like LAW & ORDER CRIMINAL INTENT or CROSSING JORDAN for sweeps specials such as these only serve to take away ratings, not build them. And last night's premption of MY NAME IS EARL and THE OFFICE with a BIGGEST LOSER special probably was another ratings loser. "EARL" has become a reliable hit for NBC. It is the biggest comedy hit they have. Bumping it for a BIGGEST LOSER special probably drove a few viewers away. Healthy and fit persons have little or no interest in programs like BIGGEST LOSER. It drives away an entire audience of viewers. FEAR FACTOR, while often gross and downright disgusting, probably will pull in a bigger audience. But for the most part special movies, miniseries, specials, etc., may only serve to draw viewers away for reliably ratings strong series, and are not always the best programming strategy for networks. NBC needs to take a good look at this and not repeat the same mistakes in February when another ratings sweeps period comes.

What NBC got right was some excellent storylines on LAW & ORDER including last night's SVU which was maybe their best story ever. A special 3D version of MEDIUM was also a good ratings draw, although I've personally seen far better and less blurry 3D effects elsewhere. The MARRIED WITH CHILDREN and THE THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN 3D specials seemed to have been better executed.

FOX, ABC, UPN and WB offered good episodes of regular programming, although no real difference between regular season and sweeps month programming could be noticed by me. Of these four networks, FOX will have the biggest audience share increase in January when AMERICAN IDOL is back, giving FOX a huge ratings lift. Some very good ABC programs such as DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and COMMANDER IN CHIEF seemed to lose some audience interest some weeks according to a slight ratings erosion, but then seemed to regain some footing with better promoted stronger storylines recently.

CBS seemed to be the only clear winner. Ratings remained strong, and some series such as NCIS, CRIMINAL MINDS and GHOST WHISPERER have turned in probably better than expected ratings for CBS programming executives. CLOSE TO HOME, which has been a ratings disappointment on Tuesday at 10, turned in better ratings on Friday at 9. THRESHOLD seemed like a reasonably good SciFi drama from a former STAR TREK ENTERPRISE producer. But failed to gain a following on CBS at either 9PM on Friday, or in switching places with CLOSE TO HOME at 10 on Tuesday. Last week, THRESHOLD aired perhaps their best episode ever, just as former JAG star, Catherine Bell joined the team, and SAVED BY THE BELL and SHOWGIRL's, Elizabeth Berkley starred, yet ratings fell and CBS yanked the series. All that can be figured is that Threshold was on the wrong network, where CBS slightly older demographic of viewers were not accepting of this type of genre program. On the SciFi network or as a syndicated program, Threshold could still make it. Whether it gets this chance is to be seen. But Threshold was a good program that simply seemed the wrong genre for CBS. In truth, both THRESHOLD and CLOSE TO HOME lack a,little something that makes better programs megahits, yet both are good enough to deserve a longer run. THRESHOLD may be done for good now though. Former STAR TREK producers may try a different type of SciFi story and different marketing next time around.

Other series that hit the skids during November sweeps were REUNION, ABC's lackluster comedy, HOT PROPERTIES, and the long running ALIAS series. All will be cancelled. In the case of ALIAS, Jennifer Garner who appeared to be very pregnant seemed like an unlikely secret agent to send out on dangerous missions. It made the scenes done by a stunt double appear way too obvious. But the worst factor fro ALAIS was the ABC network move to 8PM on Thursday. Every ABC program since MORK & MINDY in 1983 has died in that time slot within the year of a ratings drought. Since 1983, NBC and then CBS have carved up Thursday as their strongest night of programming. ALIAS did fine last year on Wednesday after LOST. Why ABC decided to throw this award winning program to the lions by allowing CBS and NBC stronger Thursday ratings to eat it alive is a good question. But in May, ALIAS will bow out for good.

If November sweeps was a war, then the generals of programming at CBS got it right for the most part and clearly won the sweeps with a careful strategy to air excellent episodes, careful scheduling and other thoughtful planning and few high risk specials. NBC needs to look at what CBS did right, and follow this formula to the letter. NBC can improve their position to a solid number two behind CBS with this strategy, which is better than coming in number four in January when FOX gets American Idol back on the TV schedule and NBC will be in worse condition.

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