Sweeps! Sweeps!!

Networks at a loss as November sweeps arrive
By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
The November sweeps, starting tonight, has the usual crop of celebrations (CBS turns 75), news-interview exclusives (Jessica Lynch), trophy handouts (Country Music Association Awards) and special episodes (8 Simple Rules mourns John Ritter’s death).
What’s missing: networks celebrating their usual skill at luring viewers who are eager to embrace the new TV season.
With the exception of first-place Fox ó up 20% this fall because of postseason baseball ó the news isn’t good. UPN is off 16% from last year, NBC and WB are down 11%, CBS is off 3% and ABC is unchanged compared with a lowly 2002. Among younger viewers, the declines are even sharper.
So naturally there’s even more jockeying to improve standings during sweeps, when ratings help determine local stations’ ad rates.
“The season started poorly, and now that baseball’s over, there are no more excuses” for weak performance, says top Initiative Media buyer Tim Spengler.
Less than six weeks into the season, the weaklings are being separated from the herd:
ï NBC, now in third place, has made the most moves, axing Boomtown and benching Coupling and legal drama Lyon’s Den for at least a month.
ï Fox canceled its new sitcom Luis.
ï CBS yanked David E. Kelley’s Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.
ï UPN’s The Mullets didn’t last nearly as long as its namesake hairstyle.
NBC is hauling out more repeats of Friends and Law & Order to fill its gaps. Six Law episodes are scheduled to air in the next week, leading to questions about the network’s reliance on the still-powerful crime series. Monday brings new reality dating show Average Joe (NBC, 10 p.m. ET/PT), despite the failure of another Joe, as in Millionaire.
Which brings up Fox’s dilemma: The network has been unable to parlay powerful baseball ratings into series success, as Millionaire and new drama Skin stumbled badly. Even the hit 24 premiered Tuesday with 11.6 million viewers, down 14% from last fall’s opener.
One problem, analysts say, is TV cannibalism: NBC’s Saving Jessica Lynch will do battle with another biopic, CBS’ Elizabeth Smart Story, on Nov. 9. “Each standing alone has the potential to do well,” says Steve Sternberg of media buyer Magna Global USA. “Opposite one another, they will both be hurt.”