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A Bikini Strategy to String Viewers Along

THE SWEEPS: One in a series examining the TV industry's periodic ratings rituals.

February 11, 1988|STEVE WEINSTEIN

"2 on the Town," KCBS-TV's 10-year-old magazine show, launched its monthlong sweeps programming last February with an exotic and informative look at the political and cultural environment of the Philippines under President Corazon Aquino.

KABC's rival magazine show, "Eye on L.A.," countered with a program on the world's best nude beaches, demolishing the Philippines in the ratings like a terrible typhoon.

"We tried to do a meaningful show and we got crushed by bodies," recalls Michael Meadows, executive producer of "2 on the Town."

When he saw those ratings, Meadows panicked. He decided to pull the shows planned for the end of sweeps and substituted heavily promoted "bikini" programs in a desperate attempt "to out-'Eye on L.A.' 'Eye on L.A.' " There were programs about "The World's Most Beautiful Women," "Beauty and the Beach" and a repeat of "Happy Birthday Bikini"--the sequel to which, "Bikini II," already had aired that month.

With these manufactured "sleaze and tease" episodes opposite "Eye on L.A.'s" usual bevy of beach and bikini shows, Meadows concedes now that both of L.A.'s 7:30 p.m. magazine shows nestled themselves deep into an offensive and unabashed "flurry of bosom"--securing their reputations for appealing to the prurient in their quest for ratings supremacy during sweeps.

"Yes, I got caught up in the game," Meadows says, "but I have to share some responsibility with the viewers. Every time we do a show with the word bikini in it, the rating will be twice as high. . . .

"Maybe we do compromise ourselves and do shows for high ratings," he says, "so that we can stay on the air and do the shows we really are proud of. We can't do anything if we're not on the air."

But Meadows says he decided to beg out of the sweeps/sex game this month. That may be partly because "2 on the Town," as it happens, is not likely to be on the air after this season; KCBS is looking at syndicated programming to replace it.

On the first night of this month's sweeps, while "Eye on L.A." ran a program about "the world's most beautiful women" that included footage of a topless Australian Playmate and of co-host Robin Greer in a tiny pink bikini on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, "2 on the Town" countered with a rather tame program on the world's best cruises.

That's not to say that Meadows has decided to ignore the sweeps entirely. February, he says, is "island escape" month because "when it is dark, rainy and cold, most people wish they were sitting on a beach in Tahiti." Host Melody Rogers has been seen this week hitting the tropical hot spots in the South Pacific and the Caribbean.

May sweeps, Meadows says, always feature shows that suggest places to go on a summer vacation, while in the November sweeps, the audience is generally more willing to sit through thoughtful, exotic shows on India or the Soviet Union.

"You do save (material) for sweeps," Meadows says. "I'll sit down and try to come up with trips and gimmicks that might seem more attractive than our usual non-sweeps shows."

Yet, while Meadows insists that he is through with exploitative shows, nearly all of the print ads in TV Guide for his island programs sold the show with beautiful women in bathing suits.

Both KCBS and KABC promote their magazine shows heavily during sweeps and rarely at any other time of the year. And both Meadows and his counterparts at "Eye on L.A." say that occasionally the sweeps ads go too far, thereby contributing to their reputations as the great local purveyors of T&A from around the globe.

"Occasionally, the ads are misleading and suggest something that is not in the show," Meadows says. "The question for all of us is, 'How far do we go?' With sexy ads, our audience increases, but the respect people have for us probably doesn't."

Melody Rogers complains that because of the ads and the occasional "bikini" shows that "2 on the Town" has aired, television critics and viewers automatically lump her program together with "Eye on L.A.," dismissing them both as nothing more than exploitation and sleaze.

"If you sat down and watched 15 shows, you'd see that they do much more sex than we ever did," Rogers says. "For us, sweeps just means more travel shows. We've tried to present what life is like in different countries around the world. We've tried to bring the world to our viewers."

But the people responsible for "Eye on L.A." defend their show in part by accusing "2 on the Town" of using some of the same titillating tricks for which they're condemned. John Severino, KABC's general manager, keeps a copy of "2 on the Town's" oily "Bikini II" program in his office and plays it for visitors on his big television screen to illustrate his contention that his competitor will stoop just as low as anyone else.

And Eric Schotz, executive producer of "Eye on L.A.," suggests that having Rogers--with her curly blond hair and long dancer's legs--appear in bathing suits on the beaches of the world is just as cheap as anything his show has ever presented.

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