War's over, but not the battles

If you're completely nuts about Survivor,
but also happen to be an absolute X-Files
geek and haven't met the VCR that's totally idiot-proof, you got more problems than you even know. Because on Sunday May 19 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. CBS is airing the finale of Survivor: Marquesas
and Fox is set to air the series finale of the nine-season Scully-Mulder saga.

Don't tell us you're a fan of The Practice
as well—its two-hour finale airs the same night from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. But if you are and, on top of that, you have fond memories of NBC's The Monkees, The Cosby Show, A-Team, St. Elsewhere, Silver Spoons, Star Trek
and Mama's Family,
then you're really up the creek because stars from all those shows will appear on a special Weakest Link
airing that night as well.

But that's how it is in network TV land in May. It's tougher to make a buck than ever and executives are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to get a greater return on every dollar spent while holding onto an audience that's eroding every year as more cable programming choices gain traction. So let's shoot our wad in February, May and November and alienate viewers with more repeats during the rest of the year.

"It doesn't make sense," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president, director of broadcast research, Initiative Media.

Ostensibly the sweeps are for the benefit of local stations in smaller markets that only get measured three or four times a year (depending on how significant you consider July to be as measurement period). Stations then set rates for the future based on the sweeps ratings. Or try to. But as Koerner notes, buyers demand discounts because they know the future ratings aren't going to match all the high stunt-generated ratings in the sweeps.

But then again, that's the system, and the networks have demonstrated time and again that when they put something on that's really compelling, viewers flock to it, says Roy Rothstein, vice president and director of national research at Zenith Media.

And when viewers flock, advertisers will pay real money to get their messages in front of them, he says. And the fact is, when executed properly, a season finale keeps 'em coming back for more in the fall. "Sure there's a lot of stunting because they're all trying to be extremely competitive during a very important month," he reasoned.

The sweep doesn't mean much in terms of the full-season outcome. NBC, with a big assist from the Winter Olympics, will win, in households, total viewing and most of the key adult demographics. A year ago, the sweep was more meaningful in that regard, particularly in the competition for the 18-49 demo, where NBC, ABC and Fox were all separated by two-tenths of a rating point.

But this year, the sweep may determine the outcome among regularly-scheduled shows, where through 29 weeks NBC and CBS are tied in the Nielsen household ratings at 8.5/14, as well as in total viewing where both are averaging 12.7 million viewers in prime time. NBC has a lock on the demos.

NBC is devoting much of its sweep effort to celebrating its 75th anniversary. In addition to the special Link
episode, a Frasier-Cheers
reunion show is slated, and a bunch of St. Elsewhere
alums (including Ed Begley Jr. and William Daniels) will be featured in a special Scrubs
episode. Another St. Elsewhere
alum, Mark Harmon, is set to guest-star in the sweeps story arc of West Wing.
May 16 is a big finale night for NBC—one-hour season-enders for Friends, Will & Grace
and ER
all take place that night.

ABC's biggest event is the Hallmark-produced miniseries Dinotopia, a six-hour event spread over three nights (May 12-14). Also on tap is another bizarre stunt from David Blaine, and nostalgic specials about American Bandstand, Laverne and Shirley
and That's Incredible.

Fox will bid adieu to both Ally McBeal
(cancelled last week) and The X-Files. And the network isn't taking any of this Must-See Thursday business lying down: It's going up against Friends
& Co. with three blockbusters from the Star Wars archives, including The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
and The Phantom Menace. And Cops
fans brace yourself (or turn yourself in)—episode 500 is coming your way.

CBS will celebrate itself as well with a 50th Anniversary special on Television City. It's also got the Daytime Emmy and Country Music Awards shows on tap, Honeymooners
and Mary Tyler Moore
specials and a miniseries with Ted Danson, Living with the Dead.

UPN says goodbye to Roswell
(also cancelled last week) and has a two-part Buffy
season-ender scheduled, plus a bunch of guy flicks including Lethal Weapon 3. (The WB has Lethal Weapon 4;
speaking of lethal, three WB series stars also get married during May.)

And if all of this here-and-now excitement still leaves you cold, by mid-month all of the networks will unspool their biggest event: the fall season upfronts, during which many of the dogs of 2001-2002 will be replaced by a new, exciting —and likely doomed—rosters of shows that will start the whole process anew this fall.