When TV networks set ad prices, the viewers pay

by Tom Wellington | 5/8/00 5:00am

Sweeps: a phenomenon, a much-hyped event, an utter waste of time. In television the most important months of the year are November, February and May, and why, you ask?

Because these are the sweeps months, a term that refers to the fact that these are the times when advertisers watch ratings of television shows to determine how much advertising time they will buy in the new season.

This is why this month gave us "Celebrity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!" with all of its cheating and idiotic humor, the upcoming "Jason and the Argonauts," which really just makes me wonder when NBC will run out of myths to dramatize, and various other stunts and "special events."

The sadness of sweeps is shone in promotions like "tune in for FOUR all new episodes of 'ER'" or whichever show. The networks throw in so many reruns these days that tuning in during the regular season can feel like the summertime doldrums of TV. These days, four weeks of new TV is an event to be celebrated. Pitiful, I say.

Sweeps is the only time nowadays when anything of significance occurs on television. Even if you're seeing new episodes during the year, don't expect your favorite characters to actually experience anything meaningful during any other time.

Clooney left "ER" during sweeps a couple years ago and Julianna Margulies will follow suit this month. "Party of Five" is ending. "90210" is ending. This is when your favorite characters get married, have their first kiss, face their mortal enemy from the second season and so on.

In other words, sweeps is ruining TV.

Now I shall digress. Lately I've been watching "LA Law" reruns on A&E. Recently the cast went through the whole Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) plotline involving her heartless takeover of the firm, et cetera. As any good TV fan knows, Rosalind perished in an unfortunate step into an elevator shaft, ending her evil dominion over the beloved Mackenzie, Brackman.

Was this publicized for six months? No. Was this alluded to in previews? No. It just happened, shocking dedicated viewers and winning publicity for the already much-lauded drama, attracting new viewers. Where have the good old days gone?

Now we hear about Bruce Willis or Reese Witherspoon appearing on "Friends" for several months in advance. Does anything really happen? No ... but those people are famous! Sweet. Wouldn't people rather watch a compact season of all-new shows, a la "The Sopranos"? I think so.

After all, why have so many flocked to HBO's hit? They want quality, yes. They want curse words and nudity, yes. But let's be honest. "The Sopranos" packs such a dramatic punch because you never know what will happen next. Christopher, a huge main character, got capped and put in a coma at the end of an episode.

Would this happen on a network? Not anymore. We'd be hearing about "the ordeal approaching a major character" for months. It would happen during the last week of sweeps as the plot points for this development were teased out over the course of the preceding three weeks.

Look at "The X-Files." Once an incredible example of brave and fascinating television drama, "The X-Files" has sunk to mere tripe. Now every sweeps, ads and teasers promise: "All questions will be answered, blah blah blah." Well, we know they won't, so stop telling us they will!

What I'm trying to say here is that the whole idea of sweeps is completely off base. Instead of feeding us idiotic "reality" specials like Fox does or inordinately retarded TV movies, as is NBC's wont, just give us great TV on a regular schedule for, say, half the year. Maybe some shows could run in the summer and some in the winter, thereby avoiding the problem of deciding between quality, a problem, I might add, does not occur all too often.

Follow HBO's lead, people. Stop moaning about how you can't do explicit violence and just do good programming. HBO followed "The Sopranos" finale with a premiere of its vaunted new miniseries "The Corner," guaranteeing new interesting TV for its viewers and maintaining satisfaction.

Yes, HBO is not subject to the restrictions of the networks vis--vis language and such, but that's not why they win in quality. It's because HBO is not subject to the monstrosity of trying to jack up your ratings during arbitrary moments, ruining the creative flow of television.

Now, the savvy among you are saying "Come on, Tom, people pay for HBO; of course it's better."

Well, as the savviest, let me tell you something. Every time we buy a product from any major manufacturer, be it a mutual fund, an automobile or even a bar of soap, we're doing our part to pay for network television.

And we deserve better. Hell, since beer provides what seems like 50 percent of the ads on TV and Dartmouth students drink what seems like 50 percent of the beer on Earth, we deserve better TV than anyone.

The solution is simple. Instead of sweeps, just average the ratings of television shows throughout a defined season. Instantly the emphasis changes from short-term spurts of ratings stunts to long-term, consistent quality.

It's not a tough thing to accomplish. Network ratings are published every day in major newspapers. Sweeps merely exist at the convenience of advertisers and networks, ignoring the consumer.

Fortunately for us, cable and satellite are providing stronger competition than ever, and the pressure is on.

Still, the networks are our best shot at good TV, being the only entities capable of providing an entire schedule of original programming. Get with the program, honchos.

Yeah, it might be tougher to bring us in with a season of quality rather than a couple months of stunts, but in the end you'll keep more viewers and bring a lot of people back to TV who you've lost. Moreover, advertisers will want the dollars of people who have the intelligence and the attention span to watch more than "Y2K: The Movie." We're usually the ones with all the money. Waaazuup.