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Tom Brook Friday, 19 November, 1999, 13:47 GMT
US TV's sweeps madness
The award-winning team behind the crowd-pulling Ally McBeal
By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

November is sweeps month in the US and TV viewers are being bombarded with a dazzling array of programmes.

Quiz shows promising bigger and bigger prizes, there's been a lesbian kiss on Ally McBeal, another tell-all Monica Lewinsky interview, and a drama in which New York is destroyed by an earthquake.

Monica Lewinsky returns to talk to Barbara Walters
The sweeps take place four times a year and the networks load up their schedules with big crowd pleasers, because it is during these critical weeks that audience size is measured to determine future advertising rates.

The term sweeps emerged in 1954 when the audience measurement service, Nielsen, began sending out TV logging diaries to homes starting in the east and then "sweeping" west across the country.

This year it is the specially positioned sweeps quiz shows that have won some of the biggest audiences. The American version of Britain's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? - under the same title but without the question mark - began a two-week nightly run on 7 November.

Its first broadcast brought in just under 26 million viewers. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire has given the ABC network, which carries it, its biggest hope of winning a sweeps month in years.

The competing Fox network has also unleashed its own quiz show Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge in which the jackpot has been upped to $2m.

The programme is seen as a desperate measure to help save the network during the sweeps weeks, because some of its other autumn shows have failed.

In its first broadcast, Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge gave Fox its best Thursday night figures in five months.

Charlotte Church is one of the British stars contributing to the ratings war
But the sweeps periods distort TV schedules. Network executives report they don't like it, because it forces them to deliver their best programming all at once.

TV critics find it farcical because so many of the sweeps special shows are over-hyped; and audiences say the constant over-the-top promotion also makes them cynical.

But the desperate tactics that the networks use to lure viewers do seem to work. The lesbian kiss featured on Ally McBeal won the programme its highest ratings.

British talent is playing a pivotal role in this November sweeps, not just in the astounding drawing power of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Scottish actor Alan Cumming played the role of the sleazy Rooster in a lavish made-for-TV production of the musical Annie, which was specially scheduled for the November sweeps month.

The show brought in more than 26 million viewers, enabling ABC to win its best Sunday night audience in two years. It may also help ABC to establish the first Sunday in November as annual launch pad for a family musical.

Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart: Her lesbian kiss scene won a ratings record
Another British name contributing to the sweeps madness is the young Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, who is making a special appearance in the CBS series Touched By An Angel.

Pop icons who will have sweeps programmes in their honour will be Celine Dion and Ricky Martin, who will both star in musical specials.

In news programming one of the biggest ratings peaks of the year took place in March when more than 48 million viewers tuned in to hear Monica Lewinsky talk to Barbara Walters.

Hoping for a similar ratings success during sweeps month, ABC has Lewinsky talking to Walters again in a follow-up interview that will be broadcast on 20 November.

It is somewhat disconcerting to find that quiz shows, once the staple of prime-time American TV in the 1950s, should again become the big audience winners of sweeps month 40 years later.

These new TV quiz shows have done so well that several copycats are on their way. It's a trend that clearly demonstrates the cyclical nature of TV in America.

Latino pop sensation Ricky Martin has a worldwide following
But with the two shows, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge, generating a sweeps bonanza it does highlight the creative bankruptcy of American TV's desperate struggle to bring in audiences.

It is also perhaps not so surprising to find that a TV show that has "greed" in its title should be so shamelessly embraced at a time when America has become beset by rampant materialism, and gambling is more popular than ever.

See also:

10 Nov 99 | Entertainment
08 Nov 99 | Entertainment
05 Nov 99 | Entertainment
26 Aug 99 | Entertainment
18 Aug 99 | Entertainment
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