Industry observers have been questioning the value and wisdom of the three traditional sweeps periods (four if you count July) for as long as I can remember. It likely would have made sense to do away with them altogether many years ago. Given the current state of the media in general and television viewing in particular, the continuation of this antiquated practice seems inane. We’re in the era of TV Anytime, and that includes any time of the year. Why focus on what may or may not happen during three months?
Interest in these overloaded programming periods seems to be eroding slowly. This is especially true of May, which also brings with it the end of the traditional broadcast season (another outdated concept). I remember a time not so long ago when the arrival of the May sweeps – or any sweeps period – brought with it a surge of expectation among viewers and excitement in the television press for the Very Special Programming that would appear in the four weeks to come. The broadcasters produced their biggest and best specials, movies, mini-series and other event programming to enhance their roster of regularly scheduled sitcoms, dramas, news programs and reality shows.
But the May 2013 sweeps period began yesterday, and the world yawned.
Let’s be honest: When was the last time a broadcast network offered up a truly exciting special, original movie, mini-series or other “sweeps-worthy” event, other than the three standouts of the annual February sweeps slate, the Super Bowl, the Grammy Awards and the Academy Awards? For high profile mini-series, basic cable is where the action is. Pay cable, meanwhile, largely has a lock on the made-for-television movie genre.
I would make the point that the networks instead have come to rely on the power of their reality franchises to pump up their sweeps performances, but even that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. NBC famously (and disastrously) tumbled through the recent February sweeps without an installment of its mega-hit “The Voice” on its schedule. Similarly, ABC stuck with tradition and did not debut the spring season of “Dancing with the Stars” until March, which allows for new installments to run until the end of the May sweeps, but undercuts the network’s performance in February.
Interestingly, “The Voice” is not scheduled to reach its season finale until later in June, so all of that ratings power won’t contribute much to the network’s performance in the May sweeps or the traditional season. And because it will be telecast during the month when the days are longest and television viewing slides into its traditional summertime slump, it would seem that whatever ratings the “Voice” season finale can generate will be somewhat compromised. Now I sound like an archly traditional broadcast programmer, though I don’t mean to. NBC is extending “The Voice” into June in part to help support its summer schedule, which is a good thing that addresses a different concern.
Of all the sweeps periods, May is the most damaging, because the networks’ efforts to keep fresh episodes of scripted shows available for it prompts them to fill March and April with so many repeats that many viewers think the season is already over for some of their favorite series. At the very least, viewing patterns are interrupted. This may not be an issue for a series as strong as CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” repeats of which now score higher ratings than new editions of Fox’s fast-fading “American Idol,” or the indestructible “NCIS,” but it can be disastrous for younger and/or fragile shows, like ABC’s “Nashville.” Also, it can’t help the broadcasters to consistently be reminding viewers that there are only a couple of new episodes left before season’s end. That’s like telling them over and over again to go away and come back in the fall.
With few exceptions, basic cable networks avoid these hazards by running complete seasons of their shows with minimal interruptions and without much concern for the time of year. Of course, seasons for basic cable shows are significantly shorter than for broadcast shows, but wouldn’t it be smarter for the broadcasters to break their year into halves or thirds and concentrate on making each component as strong as it can possibly be, rather than continuing to stretch most of what they have over a nine-month period, with sometimes unfortunate results? Fox this year has proven with “The X-Factor” and “The Following” that a single annual cycle or a shorter season can be beneficial to a series and its network.
The trouble with May is nothing new, but it may be that this year we are more aware of it than we have been since 2003 because during the last ten years “American Idol” has been a spring and sweeps force of uncommon magnitude. That’s all over now, as “Idol” continues to suffer from whatever is currently turning viewers off and sending them elsewhere. The “Idol” season finale has been so powerful that it made Fox in particular and broadcast television in general more vital than it had been in a long time. But that party is over. Now we can once again see May for what it is: a real broadcast bummer.