Bruce Springsteen complained in song about “57 channels and nothing on.”
Hope he’s paying attention during the next month. He’ll need only three or four channels to find plenty on.
The May sweeps period, which begins Thursday and continues through May 21 - the early start is to get it out of the way before Memorial Day weekend - is one of the busiest and most exciting ratings months in memory. February might have been feeble, but the upcoming month will be a-May-zing.
(Sweeps, conducted by the networks, are four-week periods of intensive audience measurement and audience-hyping to help affiliates set local ad rates.)
There were only five miniseries in November and February combined. In May there are seven, with two at the extended length of six hours, when four hours has become the norm. One of the four-hour offerings, “The Odyssey,” was budgeted at $30 million, about six times the cost of a normal two-parter.
ABC has presented only one multiparter all year. In May it has two.
On many nights, especially Sundays, there will be two or three alluring attractions. This will create some extraordinary showdowns, with the winners likely to be the manufacturers of videotape.
Fortunately for viewers, different programming needs at the various networks will keep the second and third chapters of the multiparters from competing.
On May 4, the first part of “Robin Cook’s Invasion” on NBC squares off against “Forrest Gump” on ABC. Also sure to pull loyal fans is a movie-length episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” not to mention “The X-Files” on Fox, which will be a spoiler against the specials on ABC, CBS and NBC every Sunday of the month.
On May 11, CBS launches its big-ticket event, “Mario Puzo’s ‘The Last Don.”’ The six-hour miniseries will go head-to-head with an adaptation of another literary giant (from a different century) - Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” a four-hour miniseries on ABC.
NBC’s “The Odyssey,” which begins May 18, also will be confronted by a rival miniseries, CBS’ “True Women,” in a classic example of counterprogramming. CBS is hoping to blunt the action-packed, special effects-loaded version of Homer’s classic with a story brimming with female appeal.
Dana Delany, Annabeth Gish and Angelina Jolie top the adaptation of Janice Woods Windle’s best seller about women’s roles in taming the West.
ABC also is going after the female audience with “Disclosure,” starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas.
“Forrest Gump” and “Disclosure” are just two of the theatrical hits on tap. Mr. Box Office, Jim Carrey, dons “The Mask” on Fox April 29.
Carrey’s closest rival when it comes to packing them in, Tom Cruise, can be found on ABC May 3 in “Interview with the Vampire.” Fox also has Robin Williams, dubbed the “funniest man in the world” by Entertainment Weekly, in “Mrs. Doubtfire” on May 6.
Miniseries and movies are not the only glamour items. Two CBS evergreens “Knots Landing” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” - will deliver long-promised reunions. The “Knots” get-together, “Back to the Cul-De-Sac,” is a two-parter set for May 7 and 9. “The Dukes” rev up General Lee on Friday.
Also returning to the scene of the crime is Peter Falk as Columbo in the ABC movie “A Trace of Murder” on May 15.
As old favorites are welcomed back, long-running series are bowing out. These going-away parties are always potent audience magnets.
“Martin” leaves Fox on May 1. ABC’s “Coach” hangs up the cleats on May 14. “Wings” departs NBC on May 14.
“Roseanne” is tentatively scheduled to present an hour-long farewell on May 20, but that could change. This is the same night and time that the Buchmans are scheduled to have their baby on “Mad About You.”
May has always been an important month because the ratings achieved (and the resulting ad rates for local stations) are valid until the following November - about twice as long as other between-sweeps intervals. (There is a sweeps period in July, but it is paid little heed because of the “Gone Fishing” signs hung out by the networks.)
This May has taken on additional urgency.
Until last year, the May sweeps fell after the official 30-week Nielsen season, which begins in mid-September. Last year, in an atypical bout of common sense, the networks agreed to extend the season through the May sweeps. However, this decision came at midseason, too late to alter program strategies, which must be plotted months in advance.
So this May is the first one the networks approached with as much interest in the results as their local affiliates. Clearly, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox each independently hoped to catch the competition off balance and stage a whirlwind finish.
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