TV ratings race: Sweeping up memories

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NBC has the forward momentum going into the May sweeps period, but the Big 3 networks are looking back.

Inspired by the smash success of last fall's "Carol Burnett" and "I Love Lucy" specials, Viacom's CBS, General Electric Co.'s NBC and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC are all counting on past glories to fuel their May ratings.

Perhaps the most sentimental journey is planned by NBC, with a month-long series of specials and programs for the network's 75th anniversary. This includes a live three-hour event May 5 from its Rockefeller Center studios, a Bob Hope special, "The Cosby Show" reunion and an "L.A. Law: The Movie" reunion TV film.

CBS is also on the nostalgia track with a "CBS ... 50 Years From Television City" special as well as two retrospectives: "The Mary Tyler Moore Reunion" and "The Honeymooners 50th Anniversary Celebration." CBS is also doing a miniseries, "Living with the Dead," which stars Ted Danson as the famous medium, James Van Praagh.

ABC too, is running a new twist on an old favorite-a "Laverne & Shirley" reunion. It is also doing a series of specials and a movie on late comedienne Gilda Radner. Also planned is a major miniseries, "Dinotopia."

News Corp.'s Fox is counting on the conclusion of two big shows: "Ally McBeal" and "The X-Files," which will bring back star David Duchovny. Fox is also bolstering its lineup with three "Star Wars" movies, no doubt helping to market this summer's "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," which sibling Fox Filmed Entertainment is distributing.

AOL Time Warner's WB is airing an " `Nsync: Bigger than Live" IMAX concert movie. Viacom's UPN has the "Roswell" series finale and a number of feature films.

The blasts from the past can be traced to the success of CBS's "Carol Burnett" and "I Love Lucy" specials, which scored 9.5 and 5.3 ratings, respectively, among adults 18-49. "The networks have realized Nick at Nite has been successful for quite a few years," says Jon Mandel, co-managing director of Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York.

For networks, the reunion/anniversary shows are relatively low-risk, and inexpensive to produce because they mainly use old footage. "Clearly, nostalgia is a very formidable trend," said David Marans, senior partner-director of consumer insight at WPP Group's MindShare, New York. "Tens of millions of people consider many of the shows and characters as friends of theirs."


Some executives believe nostalgia shows will have a short period of fame-as prime-time game shows have recently-as a result of networks overusing the trend. `"Laverne & Shirley,' why?" asked Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming services, Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York. "It ended in '83. I hardly think of that as vintage TV."

All this won't change the outcome, though. NBC is still poised to be the big winner, not just for the May sweeps but for the season overall. "NBC has a tremendous head start just from their regular programming," said Lyle Schwartz, senior-VP, director of media research, WPP's Mediaedge:CIA, New York. "I don't see Fox or CBS pushing them. I don't see a whole lot of specials doing well."

"NBC is ahead by more than half a rating point," he added. In looking at season-to-date rating through mid-April, excluding NBC's high-rated Olympics coverage, the network is so far posting a Nielsen Media Research rating of 4.8 among adults age 18-49. Next is Fox, with a 4.0 rating among the same age group. CBS and ABC trail, with each earning a 3.9 rating of adults age 18-49.

The nostalgia trend even extends to one network's marketing campaign. In a special called, "20 Years of Must See TV," NBC executives John Miller and Vince Manze, co-presidents of the NBC Agency, the network's in-house marketing group, appear on camera to discuss the beginning of the "Must See TV" brand name.

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