Today, however, few networks and fewer viewers seem to get swept up in sweeps. Sure, there are few, if any, reruns. But the original episodes represented in this week's top-10 list of shows in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic lack originality, as a nearly identical list could comprise non-sweeps months of October and December.
Drama all around
Maybe it's because the November sweeps miniseries was replaced this year by the even more dramatic dénouement of the two-year-long presidential-election maxi-series. Or the drama/reality/sport series known as the NFL, which this week once again had four spots in the top 10. CBS's "NFL Post-Gun" post-game scored first place with a 6.9/20. Then football fans grabbed the remote and flipped to NBC's "Sunday Night Football Pre-Kick" (10th, 4.3/11) and "Sunday Night Football" game (second, 6.7/16). As with miniseries of old, many viewers eagerly anticipated the next nightly episode, so ESPN's "Monday Night Football" cliffhanger notched ninth place with a 4.6/12.
Guest stars often goose series' sweeps ratings, and NBC recalled two stalwart stars from its previous glory days of "Must-See TV," with mixed results. Anthony Edwards returned to "ER" as Dr. Mark Greene. It wasn't enough for the medical melodrama to make the top 10, but its ratings rose 16% from last week to a 3.7/10, which would put it in 24th place if last night's fast-affiliate ratings hold when the final live-plus-same-day data is released.
And Jennifer Aniston, who made friends not just with her close cast but with millions as a generational touchstone in the 1990s, returned to the network nest in last night's "30 Rock," joining the presidential campaign's "It Girl" (no, not Sarah Palin but Tina Fey). But despite their star power, "Rock"'s ratings fell 8% from last week to a season-low 3.6/8 (based on fast affiliates) and didn't crack the top 10.
Sweeps specials seem fewer as well. Only one was scheduled this week, but it did make the top 10: The "42nd Annual CMA Awards" was seventh with a 5.0/13. But apparently this special felt, well, less special to some, as the demo delivery was down 7% from last year.
New 'hits' not quite there yet
New fall hits used to establish themselves in November sweeps, using the first big ratings period to solidify their status as game changers, much in the same way "ER" and "Friends" dramatically did during the same month in 1994. This November, however, has had only two shows that could arguably be called hits, but neither made this week's top-10 list, as CBS's "The Mentalist" (4.0/10) was 18th, topping timeslot rival "Fringe" (3.8/9), Fox's sci-fi series that finished 21st.
So instead of miniseries, specials, guest stars and new series, it was old favorites rounding out the top 10. ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and Fox's "House" have made a home on the list (as long as they run original episodes) regardless of which measurement month it runs in. "Housewives" finished fourth with a 5.9/13, while "House" was fifth with a 5.5/14. CBS's "Two and a Half Men" -- which seems to make it regardless if it's an original or repeat running -- was eighth with a 4.9/11. And if last night's fast-affiliate ratings hold, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (5.9/14) and CBS's "CSI" (5.1/12) will be third and sixth, respectively.
Not surprisingly given the standard scheduling, sweeps are not cleaning up this year. A full month will iron out the ratings wrinkles from election coverage, the Obama infomercial, sports and specials, but in general, after two weeks, sweeps-to-date demo ratings for all prime telecasts are down on all five networks compared to the first two sweeps weeks last November.
Maybe the lack of schedule stunting is a realization that sweeps were necessary in the era of the eating TV dinners while watching the big three on a console and recording it in a diary, as opposed to today's age of microwave meals while watching the big 300 on big screens and punching in people meters. And viewers are in on the game anyway, gaming the system themselves by quickly retreating to the networks' cable competitors (or cousins) once the advertising and audience artifice of sweeps ends.
But if they're going to keep it, maybe the networks and Nielsen should move it to December anyway. Because if November's series aren't inspired, December's season is, with Charlie Brown, Linus, Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch and Jimmy Stewart set to make media memories once again.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: It will never be known how many would have loved "Everybody Hates Chris" had it run on CBS instead of corporate cousin the CW -- let alone now on a Friday. But check back -- you may not only like "Chris," but, well, love the show.
Saturday: CBS runs the silly, sophomoric -- but funny -- campus comedy "Old School."
Sunday: CBS's "60 Minutes" confirms it is still the best broadcast newsmagazine by its latest "get," President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, who will be interviewed by Steve Kroft.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
For a Saturday, a night that male viewers are believed to shun, there sure are a lot of guy-oriented options this time around. Will ABC's college football game, CBS's "Old School," NBC's "Knight Rider" and Fox's "Cops" increase men ratings?
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.