The NCAA basketball tournament is known as "March Madness," but the real craziness in network television will occur in May.
Though the February ratings sweeps begin tonight, programmers have already trained their sights on the May survey period--shaping up to be one of the most costly and competitive shootouts in recent memory.
Because May is most important to local TV stations, who use sweeps results to negotiate advertising rates, that four-week competition (officially April 24 through May 21) will feature a staggering array of big-event programs.
By way of comparison, the February sweeps feature two miniseries: NBC's disaster drama "Asteroid" on Feb. 16-17 and CBS' mystery "Night Sins," with Valerie Bertinelli, on Feb. 23-25. Events include NBC's broadcast of "Schindler's List," but ratings grabs are mostly being made via specials, stunts and guest casting, such as Debbie Reynolds (fresh off her role in "Mother") as Dan's mom on "Roseanne," reuniting "Welcome Back, Kotter's" "sweathogs" on "Mr. Rhodes," Danny DeVito appearing with wife Rhea Perlman on her sitcom "Pearl," and many Valentine's Day-themed episodes, including Fox's "Love Week."
In May, eight miniseries are scheduled, including two rare six-hour productions: ABC's Stephen King adaptation of "The Shining" and CBS' "The Last Don"--based on "The Godfather" writer Mario Puzo's novel, and starring Danny Aiello.
May is so packed with stunts and events that networks are announcing airdates for some programs now to stake out turf. "Last Don" opens May 18 against NBC's biggest gun, "Homer's Odyssey," a mythical epic (Armand Assante stars) inspired by the network's success a year ago with "Gulliver's Travels."
Unless someone blinks, the same networks face off April 27 with "True Women," a historical account of settling Texas, starring Dana Delany and Annabeth Gish, versus Part 1 of NBC's aliens-among-us thriller "Robin Cook's 'Invasion.' "
In addition to "The Shining," which the network could have aired now but opted to hold till May, ABC will offer a "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" remake, while CBS goes the reunion route with "Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-De-Sac." Even Fox--which seldom airs miniseries--weighs in with a four-hour version of Dean Koontz's bestseller "Intensity."
The month will also feature ABC's three-hour telecast of the theatrical smash "Forrest Gump" and finales of such long-running comedy series as "Roseanne," "Coach" and "Wings." The excess will burst from the screen, almost literally, with ABC planning a3-D week and NBC turning out a one-hour 3-D "3rd Rock From the Sun."
Though sweeps also take place in November and February, May's is more important because TV stations use those numbers to sell commercial time into the fall. Results from the other sweeps impact no more than three months each.
"The mathematics of the calendar dictate it," noted Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, which owns six network affiliates, including the ABC station in Providence, R.I., and CBS' outlet in West Palm Beach, Fla. "It's been obvious to the station end of the industry far, far longer than the network end."
The networks, however, have gotten the message. "Three days into this job, I had my first teleconference with the affiliate board, and there were three things that they said to me: 'May, May, May,' " recalled CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves.
"May is a very critical period because it generally feeds the momentum of sales and pricing for a six-month period," said John Garwood, general manager of WPLG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Miami. "It has the longest shelf-life of any [ratings] book."
While the networks get national ratings daily, stations in more than 200 markets--ranging from New York to Glendive, Mont.--rely on sweeps for local ratings information. To stations, network performance is most important from 10:30 to 11 p.m., leading into their local newscasts.
Executives admit that pitting major miniseries against each other isn't an ideal situation, potentially turning $20-million to $30-million investments (the estimated price tags for "Odyssey," "The Shining" and "Last Don") into costly flops. Yet given the demands of their stations, officials say they have little choice.
"There's a limited number of places where you can put these events," said ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses, acknowledging that it "would be better for everybody if we could sprinkle these events more throughout the broadcast year."
For that reason, Moonves and other network executives have advocated ending sweeps, though there's currently no practical alternative to measure local-market results.
Moreover, each network's bottom-line interest in sweeps has multiplied as they buy more TV stations. CBS and Fox own 14 and 22 outlets, respectively, reaching more than 30% of all U.S. homes. The ABC and NBC station groups blanket nearly 25% of the country.