The ratings are bad for CBS this year, and that means good news for viewers in coming days. Well, semi-good news, anyway.
May sweeps, the last and biggest bang of the 1994-95 television season, will start tonight and continue through May 24. In a no-holds-barred effort to assuage unhappy affiliates, who have seen the ratings for their late newscasts sink as a result of CBS' lackluster prime-time programs, the network will air an unusually large amount of special programming during the next 30 nights.
The May lineup includes: Anjelica Huston and Melanie Griffith in Larry McMurtry's "Buffalo Girls," Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly in another "Cagney & Lacey" film, Jim Garner in a new "Rockford Files," and possible wedding bells for both Dr. Quinn (Jane Seymour) and Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen). Yes, there are always weddings during May in Television Land.
Of course, since a ratings gain for one network almost always means a ratings loss for another, more special programming from CBS means more from the others.
ABC, NBC and Fox are not going to counter CBS fully in terms of quantity. They don't have to. Each has enjoyed some prime-time growth with key demographic audiences this season, meaning they have much happier affiliates and advertisers than CBS does.
But none wants to be blown out of the water, either. A bad ratings report card in May could hurt summer sales. So, each will selectively up the ante in the pot of prime-time programs with miniseries, movies and special episodes of weekly series.
ABC has another Stephen King miniseries, a movie about the Navy's "Tailhook" scandal, and a possible wedding for Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and Costas (Sharon Lawrence) on "NYPD Blue."
NBC has Sherilyn Fenn in the miniseries titled "Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story," and Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."
Fox has a marriage proposal for Kelly (Christina Applegate) on "Married . . . With Children," the premiere of Francis Ford Coppola's "White Dwarf" (a film about a young doctor coming of age in outer space), and the "Melrose Place" finale involving one of the characters' setting off a bomb at the apartment complex.
Even though PBS and the cable channels don't live and die by sweeps, the way the commercial networks do, they'll be getting in on the act on a limited basis. Their fear is that not offering any different programming might prompt viewers to leave and never come back.
So HBO will offer George C. Scott and Michael Jai White in "Tyson," a docudrama about the former heavyweight champ who just got out of prison, as well as James Woods in a film about the McMartin preschool case, "Indictment." Discovery will air "The Fall of Saigon," a documentary on the 20th anniversary of that event. PBS' big effort is Ric Burns' six-hour documentary, "The Way West."
From first to third
But CBS and its problems are key to understanding the extra programming push this May.
How bad are things at CBS? The network has gone from first to third in overall ratings in the last 11 months. It's now in fourth place behind Fox with the key demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49 -- even though Fox has only about three-fourths the affiliates CBS does.
CBS did so poorly during the first months of the fall season that the network is giving free time to advertisers to make good on programs that didn't deliver promised audiences in October, November and December.
Things got worse in '95. CBS earnings for the first three months show a 68 percent drop compared with the same three months last year -- from $69.3 million last year to $21.9 million this year.
It's reached the point where CBS President Laurence Tisch might have to lower his $5 billion asking price for the network, according to
Broadcasting & Cable magazine.
The ones hurt the most are the CBS affiliates -- especially new ones, such as WJZ in Baltimore.
"If a network puts a push behind a month, often it's going to help you out -- or vice versa," says Andre De Verneil, research director at WJZ.
A WJZ survey of the top 50 television markets found that three-fourths of the NBC affiliates showed an increase in ratings for their 11 p.m. newscasts during the February sweeps, De Verneil says. Ratings for newscasts on many CBS affiliates were down during the same month, the result of poor CBS lead-in, the survey found.
Thanks in part to the sorry lead-in, WJZ's "Eyewitness News" in February failed for the first time in 17 years to win outright the 11 p.m. ratings race. WJZ tied with WBAL, which was helped by a first-place finish from NBC during prime time in February.
Hyping the hits
NBC's winning formula revolves around hyping its hit sitcoms with sweeps guest appearances, such as Bette Midler on "Seinfeld" (May 18).
CBS will try some of that in coming days. But when you have weak series, such as the ones that dominate CBS' schedule, the results are likely to be questionable.
Tomorrow night, for example, the creaky "Diagnosis Murder" finds Dr. Mark Sloan (Dick Van Dyke) investigating a murder on the set of "The Young and The Restless," the top-rated CBS daytime soap opera. The idea apparently is to get younger demographics at any cost, including suspension of disbelief.
But the heart of CBS' sweeps strategy is to stunt with one-shot special programs.
In an attempt to start fast, the network offers its most-publicized production: the four-hour "Buffalo Girls" on Sunday and Monday. It's not "Lonesome Dove," but it is from the same production company, and it's going to offer a lot of pleasurable viewing. It's ,, the story of Calamity Jane (Anjelica Huston) and some of her friends in the final days of the American frontier.
Tuesday on CBS, it's "Cagney & Lacey: Together Again" in the second made-for-TV movie reuniting Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly. The first movie was a big November ratings hit. This one is better.
There's a special on CBS virtually every night of the sweeps -- most of it not in the league of "Buffalo Girls" or "Cagney & Lacey." For example, Monday night begins with another David Copperfield production. Wednesday, it's "Beyond Belief . . . Amazing True Stories." Thursday, it's "Where Are They Now?"
The last two are cheap, reality programming. There's lots of that on CBS. There's also too much of the nostalgia programming that hurt CBS demographically in the first place -- such as "Ed Sullivan's All-Star Comedy Special" May 19 and "The Brady Bunch Special" May 24.
Such programs are the reason for saying "semi-good news" at the start of this story. More doesn't automatically mean better when it comes to sweeps programming. In fact, it often means "makes-you-want-to-gag."
While many programs that will air later in May are not yet available for preview, here's some of what the other networks will be serving up:
* ABC. Stephen King's "The Langoliers," with Patricia Wettig and Dean Stockwell, will air May 14 and 15. It is the network's biggest event. "Tailhook," starring Gail O'Grady of "NYPD Blue," will air May 22. On a lighter note, there's "The Laverne & Shirley Reunion" May 22.
Just to prove that the No. 1-rated network can stoop as low as anyone else, there's "Superstar American Gladiators," with gladiator teams made up of stars from each network, on May 4. And could you live without knowing that Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) and the "Family Matters" gang are going to Disney World in a two-parter Friday and May 5?
Series finale alert: "Full House" (May 23).
* NBC. The network says its airing of "Jurassic Park" (May 7) is the big event of May. But, in case you are not buying that, there's "The Return of Hunter" (Sunday), "Robin Cook's 'Virus '" with Nicollette Sheridan (May 8), and "Naomi & Wynonna (Judd): Love Can Build a Bridge" (May 14 and 15). How about Quentin Tarantino directing "ER" on May 11, or Barry Levinson directing the season finale of "Homicide" on May 5?
And could we have a sweeps without a Dick Clark "Bloopers" show? We now have "NBC's All-Star Ultra TV Censored Bloopers" (May 20). And, in a particular bit of sweeps reality-bending, viewers can go from seeing Kristen Wilson playing Robin Givens as an evil schemer trying to separate Mike Tyson from his money in HBO's "Tyson" on Friday, to seeing the real Givens playing a woman scheming to steal Will (Will Smith) from his fiancee on "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" on Monday.
L Series finales: "Empty Nest" (Saturday), "Blossom" (May 22).
* Fox. Like NBC, Fox is mainly going with its series. But instead of just guest stars, Fox also adds sex. Tonight, Synclaire (Kim Coles) is asked to go nude in her first acting role on "Living Single." Naughty By Nature are the guest stars. On Sunday, Al Bundy directs his first movie, and it's all bikinis on "Married . . . With Children." On May 4, Martin has a bachelor party on "Martin," with YoYo as special guest.
Last year, Fox won the award for the most hyped final episode when the network and producers for "Melrose Place" did a Hamlet, publicly debating whether 'tis best to show or not to show a gay kiss involving the character Matt (Doug Savant). After reams of free publicity, the kiss was never shown.
This week, "Melrose Place" has again taken the lead in the May hype-stakes, with a leak that its May 22 season finale ends with a bomb exploding, resulting in a cliffhanger ending of who will live and die.
The network issued a statement yesterday saying the episode was filmed the week before the bombing at the federal office building in Oklahoma City, but it was now debating whether to air it.
"All of us at Fox and Spelling television [the producers] share the grief of those impacted by the tragedy in Oklahoma City," the Fox statement says.
"We are sensitive to an aspect in the season finale of 'Melrose Place' because of a single incident [the bomb at the wedding] . . . We are currently deciding the best way to handle that one aspect of the May 22 episode and will make that decision over the next week."
C7 The last big bang of the television season, indeed.