What Happened To November Sweeps?

Illustration for article titled What Happened To November Sweeps?

With December breathing down our necks, one question is on our mind more than any other: "Why was November's television so boring?" November is a sweeps month, after all, and traditionally, that means stunt-casting, unlikely plots centered around an image or concept that will easily slot into 30-second trailers and all other types of excitement that you just can't find during the rest of the year (Well, except for February, May and July, of course)... but this year, it was as if everyone forgot about sweeps altogether. What happened?


One possibility is that television didn't change, but we did. Fringe took Olivia back into the tank and Walter back to the asylum, two "big" plots that didn't seem to have the impact that they should've (In part, I think, because they were done too early. Walter has to go back to the asylum? Big deal! He's only been out of there for a few weeks); similarly, Heroes' flashback to the start of the series to retcon/fill in the blanks and Smallville's disrupted wedding lacked the weight that their creators obviously had hoped for. Perhaps we've gotten too used to all the familiar tricks that television shows like to throw us at this time of the year, sadly.

Another alternative is that show makers - and even moreso, the people responsible for promoting the shows - have lost the ability to tell what would make a good sweeps stunt or not these days; NBC's Chuck is prime example of this. For all of their "Jordana Brewster is on Chuck! As his ex-girlfriend Jill!" promos, they missed any sensationalistic "And Chuck and Casey kiss!" advertisements for their ill-fated saliva swap. In general, advertising for most genre shows seemed to be lacking this year; maybe it's my love and overuse of Tivo, but I didn't see any advertisements even for shows like Life On Mars or Knight Rider, both of which are mid-level successes for their respective channels.

The third option is that, well, sweeps just don't matter anymore. As television makers start thinking DVD sales, online viewership, or even syndication, if they're old school, the notion of making "special sweep stunt" episodes may just not really seem as important as they used to. With ratings in general being problematic for most networks in the current environment, whatever pressure there may have been to perform especially well during sweeps may have been replaced by a continual pressure to just perform in general and stem the loss of viewers to cable and/or non-TV-related activities altogether, or else concentrate on producing shows that work with one particular demographic solidly, without spikes.

All of this may be pointless conjecture, of course; we'll have to wait until February to see what our favorite shows do for the next sweeps period to see whether this particularly flat month was an accident, or a sign of things to come.


It seems to me that the traditional rhetoric of sweeps month has become the standard advertising device for television. Every week is "the episode you won't want to miss" because "you won't believe your eyes" and anyway, "everything you thought you knew about My Own Worst Enemy is wrong". Against that screeching backdrop, maybe we had nowhere else to go.