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MBPT Spotlight: It’s May Sweeps Month—Does Anyone Care?

The broadcast network primetime May sweeps kicked off last Thursday. Did anyone notice? Hardly.

Once a mega-competitive month when the Big Four broadcast networks ran all sorts of specials, stunts and miniseries, and aired their best episodes with big-name guest stars, the sweeps are practically non-existent today.

The November sweeps came and went with no fanfare, the February sweeps were a wash because of the Olympics on NBC, and now we’re expecting a trifecta with May.

The sweeps’ heyday wasn’t very long ago, back when the broadcast networks used to flood the trade press and other media with mass promotional releases leading up to program airings, and similarly dole out data each morning crowing about their ratings wins the night before and their superiority during each sweeps month.

The May sweeps during many seasons determined which network won the season in viewers or in the advertiser-desired 18-49 demo rating, important stuff heading into the upfronts, where much ad buying and selling happens for the coming season.

Of course, the purpose of the sweeps was to come up with broadcast network ratings data that the local TV stations could use to sell their own primetime advertising. For years, Nielsen collected and distributed more than two million paper diaries in markets across the country during the sweeps months to gather viewer numbers on the local market level.

However, local people meters have been replacing diaries in the markets, rendering sweeps ratings less important since ratings are available on a year-round basis rather than only from the big three months.

And the broadcast networks seem more preoccupied with trying to program against cable on a season-long basis, rather than saving their best programming for specific sweeps periods.

“With cable programming year-round now instead of just introducing their new and returning series during the summer, the broadcast networks have to compete with cable in every month and not worry about competing with themselves in sweeps months,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP, research at Horizon Media.

Bringing on guest stars during the sweeps was once a big deal, but when the CBS series TheCrazy Ones brought in Pam Dawber, who costarred with series star Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy (1978-82) for an episode, the network aired it not in the May sweeps but on April 10—and good thing, too. The episode drew only 6.9 million viewers and a 1.7 18-49 demo rating, one of the freshman comedy series’ lowest rated episodes of the season.

This past Monday night, Fox ran a repeat episode of drama Bones leading into the season finale of The Following. Bones drew just north of 4 million viewers and barely a 1.0 18-49 demo rating. The Following, Fox’s top-rated drama last season, went out with a whimper, drawing fewer than 5 million viewers.

Also on Monday night at 10 p.m., CBS seemed to concede the time period to first-run episodes of The Blacklist on NBC and Castle on ABC by running a repeat episode of Person of Interest that drew fewer than 5 million viewers, half the total of its two competitors. The sweeps just don’t rate as well in the eyes of the broadcast networks.

“May is now more notable for the end of the broadcast season than for a major competitive sweeps battle among the networks,” Adgate says. “All the sweeps months have pretty much become irrelevant for marketers and the networks.”

Adgate points out that the sweeps months have become more important to Spanish-language broadcast network Univision, which has been randomly beating some of the English-language broadcast networks in the 18-34 and 18-49 demos during sweeps months.

“The sweeps lost their cache a while ago, not only with the local people meters, but also with the growth of DVR viewing and the rise in video-on-demand and online viewing,” says Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat. “People just don’t view TV the same way these days and the networks know it and have shifted to a year-round process of delivering programming.”

And Gold says guest stars no longer impress viewers because so many of them are on TV and cable, adding, “Lindsay Lohan on 2 Broke Girls, no big deal, and the list can go on and on.”

“With so many addictive cable dramas on, Netflix binge-viewing and the like, it’s just harder for a regular show to really capitalize on a ‘special guest star’ or ‘special episode,’” Gold says.

NBC did have success with a live special airing of The Sound of Music that surprised with a strong viewership of 18.6 million, but that aired in December, not during a sweeps month. And NBC announced that next “holiday season” it plans to televise a live special of Peter Pan. Not to be outdone, Fox this week announced that it will televise a live special airing of Grease next season.

Sweeps Don’t Fail Me Now

So what’s on tap for this May sweeps month? Not much other than the usual series season finales.

NBC on Sunday, May 11 and on Thursday, May 15 will televise a two-part, four-hour remake of the Roman Polanski horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby, starring Zoe Saldana.

Fox will premiere its summer series 24: Live Another Day, the sequel to its former hit 24, on May 5 with a two-hour episode.

ABC will be the most aggressive of the Big Four broadcast networks as far as premiering new programming in May.

ABC already premiered new drama series Black Box on the first day of the May sweeps last Thursday. It drew 6.9 million viewers and a 1.5 18-49 demo rating—not exactly blockbuster numbers.

On Friday, May 2 at 8 p.m., ABC will air the special Shark Tank: Swimming With theSharks, which will be hosted by Lara Spencer of Good Morning America and will give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the network’s reality series Shark Tank. The special will lead into a regular episode of Shark Tank at 9.

On Friday, May 15 at 9 p.m., ABC will televise the two-hour special, Barbara Walters: HerStory, which will look back at the broadcaster’s more than five decades in the news and entertainment business. And on Sunday, May 18, ABC will televise the Billboard Music Awards from 9-11 p.m.

ABC’s The Bachelorette will begin its summer run on Monday, May 19 at 9:30 p.m. leading out of Dancing With the Stars, before moving to its regular summer time period of 8 p.m. Monday the following week.

And finally on Wednesday, May 21 at 10 p.m., ABC will premiere its returning summer drama Motive.

“The sweeps have been around for so long and are still part of the media vernacular,” Carat’s Gold says, “but as time goes on and Nielsen continues to increase its local measurement and viewing continues to fragment to multiple platforms, the sweeps will become less and less important and may one day be a thing of the past.”