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Tuned In: Changes for ratings swept away viewers

Thursday, February 27, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Forget about which networks won and lost in the February sweeps ratings, viewers were the real losers as some networks revised their schedules repeatedly.

This caused much frustration for anyone who read in TV listings that "The Practice" would air Mondays on ABC, only to find it replaced two weeks in a row by reruns of a Michael Jackson special and "The Bachelorette."

Likewise, NBC pre-empted "Third Watch," "Scrubs" and "Good Morning, Miami" in order to "protect" them from fierce competition, according to NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker.

Sweeps ended last night, and it appears CBS will come out on top in total viewers as Fox, fueled by the success of "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol," comes back to life after a dismal fall launch, landing in the top spot for adults 18-49. It's NBC's first sweeps demographic loss since February 2000.

"It was the craziest sweeps in the history of show business, the month of Michael Jackson, reality finales, reality premieres and shows that just plain defied reality," said CBS president Leslie Moonves in a conference call with TV writers Monday.

Yesterday, NBC's Zucker dubbed the month, "Hey, I'm a Scripted Show -- Get Me Out of Here!"

"If they feel February was ridiculous or crazy or nutty, the competition ought to prepare for a pretty ridiculous, crazy or nutty March, April and May," said Fox executive Sandy Grushow. "By and large, the schedule that led to this network's sweeps victory in February will remain intact" as "Married By America" premieres Monday, replacing reality romance hit "Joe Millionaire."

In February, "reality" shows generated huge ratings boosts, a boon for the traditional broadcast networks (no one's talking about basic cable series now, Zucker pointed out), but most network executives expect the current frenzy to subside.

ABC, in particular, relied on short-run reality shows and specials (only 37 percent of ABC's sweeps shows were scripted, according to NBC's estimates), but in a teleconference yesterday, ABC executives maintained that scripted series will form the foundation of their schedule.

Both CBS and The WB performed well using scripted series, which WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin said are essential for a network's long-term ratings health. He compared the use of short-term reality shows to a child who wants to stay home from school "sick" and puts a thermometer under a light bulb.

"It gives you a pop in numbers, but it's not selling on a long-term basis," Levin said. "They got a big number, but it's not a great measure of where you're at."

Other sweeps news:

Fox has found a way to go forward with a second "Joe Millionaire," although clearly some aspects of the series will have to change. But Fox's Grushow promised it "will carry virtually all of the same values forward ... men, women, romance and money at stake." Yes, he really used the word "values."

Fox renewed the increasingly predictable "24" for a third season.

NBC's Zucker admitted scheduling "Kingpin" twice a week hurt the show, but, he said, NBC was pleased with its ratings performance and will consider it for the network's fall schedule.

ABC announced a slew of renewals for next season, including "Alias," "Life With Bonnie," "According to Jim," "Less Than Perfect," "8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter," "My Wife and Kids," "George Lopez," "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "The Bachelor."

Kim Delaney will return to "NYPD Blue" in May for a story arc.

ABC's 'Celebrity'

The "reality" show onslaught continued last week with the premiere of ABC's "I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here!" It's somewhat amusing to watch model Nikki Schieler-Ziering apply makeup while camping in an Australian rain forest, but not interesting enough to watch more than once.

The most enjoyable aspect is seeing how uninformed celebrities can be. "We did not sign up to be humiliated!" Melissa Rivers screamed as she was asked to pour rats and bugs into a wildly oversized pair of pants she wore for the first "Bush Tucker Trial" (think: the gross part of "Fear Factor").

Rivers went on this program not expecting humiliation? Has she never watched a reality show?

'Front Lines' is not 'Frontline'

PBS's "Frontline" sent out a press release this week seeking to assure viewers that ABC's new military docudrama "Profiles from the Front Lines" is different from its critically lauded documentary series "Frontline."

Both air Thursday nights, but aside from the similar words in the titles, they're nothing alike.

ABC's "Profiles," premiering at 8 tonight, has been promoted as another reality series ("Real American Idols ... experience a real Fear Factor ... know what it is to be a real Survivor..."), but it's actually a more sober docudrama about American troops in Afghanistan.

Shot from summer to fall in 2002 in cooperation with the Department of Defense, the footage comes from eight camera teams that followed U.S. Special Operations forces apprehending suspected terrorists.

Although the Pentagon got to review the series before it airs, producers said they were not asked to change anything.

Making beautiful music

Tuesday's "Smallville," written by series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, was an excellent dramatic hour, moving the story of young Clark Kent forward with help from a Superman of the past, guest star Christopher Reeve. But the most effective, goosebump-inducing aspect was the show's use of the recognizable musical phrase from the John Williams score to 1978's "Superman" -- a smart, classy, emotionally engaging touch.

Channel surfing

Daily Variety reported yesterday, to virtually no one's surprise, that Sarah Michelle Gellar is done with UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Her contract expires at the end of this season. The series will likely end too, although a spinoff is possible. ... NBC's "Ed" will move to 9 p.m. Fridays for its final three episodes of the season beginning March 21. ... Pittsburgh native Jamie Widdoes will executive produce and direct the pilot for a new NBC sitcom starring Heather Locklear as a divorced mother of two children.

Investigations

Sweeps ended last night and although there were no hugely egregious "sweeps features" on local stations, the higher-minded sweeps features of 2002 are no more.

Channel 11 aired several so-called "investigations" with little relevance to the community at large. The worst was the story of students whose purses were stolen from an unlocked, unattended classroom. I'm sure things are stolen in schools every day. Why is this news? What makes it worthy of the "Target 11" logo? Just because viewers call in with a story idea doesn't mean it's worth pursuing.

A Paul Van Osdol report on Channel 4 looked at young pilots and FAA studies showing that pilots in their 20s have the highest rate of in-flight incidents. Oh, irony. All the tsk-tsking about youthful inexperience came from a TV station that routinely hires younger, less experienced reporters.

WTAE's Jim Parsons looked at "diploma mills" that churn out worthless "degrees," a worthy topic for investigation. But chasing down local instructors with these phony doctorates on their resumes didn't advance the story, particularly because one was an adjunct professor and the other a basketball coach (a Ph.D. isn't required for either position). It's as if Parsons started work on the story and couldn't get the goods, but Channel 4 put it on the air anyway.

Say what?

Friday at 5 p.m., WPXI anchor Gina Redmond read a story that contradicted itself about the Rhode Island nightclub fire.

"What's not in dispute," Redmond said, "is the fact the club went up in flames so fast, nobody had a chance to get out."

Nobody except all the survivors interviewed in the report that followed.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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