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Tuned In: Events will sweep away February's ratings

Thursday, January 31, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

No matter who rates No. 1 in the February sweeps, which begin today, nobody really wins.

In airing the Winter Olympics, NBC is all but guaranteed top dog status, but because of the anomaly of the Olympics (plus the Super Bowl on Fox), local stations won't be able to use the February measurement of viewers to set future ad rates, the usual purpose of sweeps.

"It's not going to mean much for projecting forward," said Bonita LeFlore, executive vice president and director of local broadcast buying for Zenith Media in New York. "Buyers are going to have to look at other sweeps reports in order to pick up trends in viewing."

Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow agreed.

"Clearly most affiliates are going to be throwing the book out the window," Grushow said earlier this month.

LeFlore said Pittsburgh's January sweeps ratings period, which ended yesterday, will be more important than usual this year because the February ratings will be so skewed.

"Savvy advertisers know the February book is meaningless," said WTAE general manager Jim Hefner. "In my mind, the next sweeps period will be in May."

Not surprisingly, general manager Ray Carter of NBC affiliate WPXI has a slightly different take on the worth of the February ratings.

"There are certain other day parts people will key in on," Carter said. "Will the Olympics help my morning show? I still do news at 5 in the afternoon, so I'm not being bumped there. There are certain people in the buying community who will be looking at the February book. Will they look at it differently than the typical February book? Sure."

KDKA, WPXI and WTAE plan to compete just as hard in news with sweeps features.

"We're treating this as a regular book," said KDKA news director Al Blinke. "I'm not going to roll over and play dead for anybody."

Blinke and WTAE news director Bob Longo both said their sweeps pieces will concentrate on harder news elements and investigative pieces.

Channel 4 hasn't run a contest in its early evening newscast during February sweeps for several years, and with the disruptions this year, the contest will sit out sweeps again.

Channel 11's late news will be delayed until 11:30 p.m. many nights.

"It's a two-edged sword," Carter said. "It's good news 'cause you've got a huge audience [lead-in], but at the same time it somewhat displaces late news viewers. We hope they'll stay with us."

Expect to see few if any sweeps pieces in that late newscast, but Channel 11 may have a presence at the Olympics. News director Pat Maday said he hopes to send a reporter to cover a portion of the games, particularly Penguins player/owner Mario Lemieux, who will captain and play for Canada's men's ice hockey team.

It's not just local television that's affected in February. In prime time, viewers will see reruns of many shows, something that's anathema during sweeps.

"In a year when you can only do 22 or 24 originals of your episodic shows, it's silly to waste them against the Olympics ...," said CBS president Leslie Moonves. "You have to hold your bullets for when they'll be more appropriate. ... As I said in November, I do acknowledge a victory for NBC in February."

LeFlore said the Olympics are expected to generate more attention than usual because the games are being held on American soil and the time difference is less severe. The swell of patriotism post-Sept. 11 is compounding viewers' interest.

Not everyone is throwing in the towel. With its appeal to young men, who typically watch less of the Olympics than women, Fox will compete with mostly original episodes.

"We'll try to fight as best we can," Fox's Grushow said, "but I think we're about to see some pretty eye-popping numbers out of the Olympics."

Last summer, Grushow said he was considering another round of "Fox Summer Games," promoting fun-in-the-sun-themed episodes of its programs to compete with the Olympics. Instead, Fox will save its promotional money for the future.

Merrill back to Michigan

WTAE morning anchor Sam Merrill will return whence he came: WNEM in Flint, Mich., where he worked before coming to Channel 4 in March 1999.

"[WTAE executives] made it pretty clear they'd like me to stay, but the job I want isn't going to be available to me here in a time frame I can live with," Merrill said.

He wants a permanent spot as a main anchor on the evening newscasts, which is what he'll have in Michigan as anchor of the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts.

"I'm disappointed it didn't work out that way here, but they have the guys in place they want, and God bless 'em," Merrill said. "I'd love to come back here. I loved living here. The opportunity to do what I want to do just isn't here. Three years of getting up at 3 in the morning is plenty."

Merrill will appear on Channel 4 through the end of February. The search for a replacement has begun, though it's possible there could be some internal shifting to fill openings in the weekday morning and weekend anchor chairs.

Super Bowl commercials

Without a team to cheer on, we're back to watching the Super Bowl for its commercials, so it's worth noting that PBS will carry a roundtable discussion of new commercials that debut during the game.

"Super Commercials: A Mental Engineering Special" will air on WQED/WQEX at 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Based on clips from last year's show, it looks to be a fairly dry, academic, anti-capitalist deconstruction of TV advertisements.

'Scrubs' VCR alert

Tuesday's "Scrubs" is "super-sized," which means it will air from 9:31 to 10:08 p.m. Set your VCRs accordingly.

It's a strong episode in an already winning first season for this NBC comedy-drama. Heartfelt without being sappy, humorous without trying too hard to be funny, "My Bed Banter & Beyond" chronicles the blossoming relationship between J.D. (Zach Braff) and Elliot (Sarah Chalke). It's seen through the construct of the doctors talking to a psychologist for a study.

Through those chats, viewers learn that the ancestors of evil Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins) settled in Monroeville, and his father, also a doctor, "stitched up three-fingered steel men by the wagonload."

But the emphasis is on the J.D.-Elliot relationship, which defies sitcom conventions.

Worst. Episode. Ever.

Frequent readers know my longtime admiration for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and given all the gushing I've done, it pains me to reverse course, but in the interest of critical honesty, I must.

Continuing a trend that began at the beginning of the season -- though the first signs were visible probably two years ago -- this week's "Buffy" was the worst episode of the series ever. It was boring. It was not funny. It had a lame plot. The actors seemed unenthusiastic.

This isn't unusual for a drama in its sixth year -- usually a one-hour series can only sustain its quality and originality for four or five years -- but it's disappointing nonetheless.

Giggle provoking

Of all the TV programs previewed this month at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, scenes from TBS's June movie "Atomic Twister" generated the loudest guffaws.

Described in press notes as a cross between "Twister" and "The China Syndrome," the cable movie stars Sharon Lawrence and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in "the horrifying tale of a storm of mega-twisters that hit a small Southern town, threatening a meltdown at a local nuclear power plant."

Clearly, this is TBS's bid for an Emmy.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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