TV Sweeps Week Surprisingly Stunt Free November is "sweeps" month. It's usually the time when TV networks air their most popular programs and investigative stories to nab the highest audiences. But this year there doesn't seem to be a single ratings stunt scheduled. Television critic Andrew Wallenstein has this report on some of the reasons networks aren't up to their usual sweeps tricks.
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TV Sweeps Week Surprisingly Stunt Free

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TV Sweeps Week Surprisingly Stunt Free

TV Sweeps Week Surprisingly Stunt Free

TV Sweeps Week Surprisingly Stunt Free

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November is "sweeps" month. It's usually the time when TV networks air their most popular programs and investigative stories to nab the highest audiences. But this year there doesn't seem to be a single ratings stunt scheduled. Television critic Andrew Wallenstein has this report on some of the reasons networks aren't up to their usual sweeps tricks.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

November is what they call sweeps month in the television industry. That's when programmers and more importantly advertisers scrutinize viewer habits. But this year sweeps are not what they used to be.

Here is TV critic Andrew Wallenstein on how sweeps have changed.

Mr. ANDREW WALLENSTEIN (TV Critic): Since the 1970s, a sweeps month was the time when the broadcast networks reserved their biggest projects. November, February, and May were the periods when the advertising industry monitored the Nielsen's ratings closest. It's when the networks stacked an abundance of movies and miniseries - like the 1977 classic: Roots. But this November not a single such program will air, and there are no plans to continue them next year.

I can't help wondering whether sweeps as we know it is gone for good and whether that serves the greater good. There's a few reasons it's come to this. The primary one is that Nielsen has refined its measurement systems so that advertisers can get accurate ratings year round, instead of just that one month. That's driven the broadcasters away from the need to spend big on movies and miniseries or what's known as long-form programming.

And then there's cable TV. It's pretty much stolen the broadcasters thunder with big budget productions. For example, HBO's Angels in America and Sci-Fi Channel's Taken, are just a few of the projects that have offered multi-night extravaganzas. Here's a scene from one such miniseries: a 2005 western, Into the West, on TNT.

(Soundbite of miniseries, "Into the West")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character in movie) The Lord fashioned us a little above the beast, a little below the angels, but he gave us a choice and it's great son. Some of these men they come west, they lose their souls. West is a place on the map, not a way to live. Don't forget that.

WALLENSTEIN: Cable does a good job with long form programming, but it's a shame to see the broadcasters out of this business. Sweeps used to generate huge ratings with quality storytelling. From the searing historical sagas like Roots and The Holocaust, to provocative takes on current events like the 1983 movie The Day After, which dared to depict a nuclear attack.

But sweeps has always been a double-edged sword. It brings out both the best and the worst the TV industry has to offer. Just think back to the Michael Jackson frenzy of 2003, when there was at least 20 hours of primetime coverage devoted to the pop star. And sometimes the movies were more alarmist than insightful, like the critically panned Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America movie that aired in May.

(Soundbite of movie, Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America)

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character in movie) There's a lot more than eight patients.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character in movie) Twenty-five in the last 12 hours.

Unidentified Woman: Which means we've lost any chance of containment.

WALLENSTEIN: But even though sweeps tempts the TV industry to pander on occasion, to me the risk is worth it as long as programmers aim high once in a while. There's no truly mass medium that captivates the nation quite like broadcast TV. I won't give up hope just yet. Television, like nature abhors a vacuum, and my guess is the stare city of long-form programming on the air right now may just increase the appetite for those shows. Till then, at least cables stands ready to fill the breach.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is our regular television critic; he's also an editor for the Hollywood reporter.

(Soundbite of music)

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