The November sweeps are here, a time for networks to do their utmost to beat each other's brains out in the marketplace with special programming you won't normally see in non-sweeps months. Between now and Nov. 28, viewers will once again be asking: "Why do they always put the good stuff on at the same time?"
The answer is economics.
Ad rates for the next several months are based on the ratings that networks and local affiliates can generate during sweeps. That dynamic motivates programmers to emulate kids who coast the rest of the year, but make sure they're on their best behavior when they know Santa is coming.
Sweeps are always confounding for viewers, and this year -- in a post-Sept. 11 world -- the networks find themselves in uncharted waters.
As news coverage dominated the airwaves following the terrorist attacks, the networks scrambled their primetime entertainment schedules at more or less the exact moment when they had intended to launch the 2001-02 season.
As a rule, networks have come to use September and October as something of a shakedown cruise for the primetime schedule -- sorting out winners from losers so they can avoid programming losers during the November sweeps. They lost that opportunity this year, but they have plucked a few programs from the primetime grid -- notably Daniel Stern's comedy, "Danny," and James Cromwell's political drama, "Citizen Baines."
Fox has scarcely had an opportunity to run its show up the flagpole, since it has been preoccupied with post-season baseball. Rupert Murdoch's network will roll out season premieres for its series at the same time as the other networks are going with shows that have already shown some strength in the marketplace.
Heading into the sweeps, NBC is enjoying new ratings vitality in its Thursday comedy line-up, mainly owing to a revival of fortunes for "Friends" -- which will use a series of high-profile guest appearances in hopes of maximizing its audience over the next four weeks. Sean Penn was scheduled to appear in Thursday's episode, and Brad Pitt is scheduled to appear on Nov. 22.
On Nov. 13, NBC will present a two-hour "Frasier" marathon, including a new episode in which Frasier toasts his 2,000th radio show by inviting Microsoft boss Bill Gates on the show.
NBC has also lined-up a series of celebrity specials for both "Weakest Link" and "Fear Factor" and the first-ever TV concert special by singer-actress Jennifer Lopez.
On ABC, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has its own celebrity editions planned -- including three featuring supermodels, one featuring members of the U.S. armed forces, and one featuring Hollywood stars Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Shannon Elizabeth and Jon Favreau.
ABC, which got off to a troubling start with sub-par ratings for newcomer "Bob Patterson" and more established comedies such as "Dharma & Greg," changed course and decided to roll out the season premiere of "NYPD Blue" in November -- returning the Emmy-winning drama to its customary Tuesday night time slot, instead of moving it to Wednesday opposite "Law & Order."
As it is, "Blue" will be up against the heavily promoted series premiere of "24" on Fox.
ABC will also feature another live episode of "The Drew Carey Show," a "Facts of Life" reunion movie and the "Victoria's Secret Annual Fashion Show." And the network's "Spin City" will feature Heather Locklear and guest star Denise Richards engaging in the latest in a long and growing line of woman-on-woman kisses.
CBS will take a third crack Sunday at televising the Emmy Awards, which were originally scheduled for Sept. 16, then for Oct. 7 -- but were postponed both times because of terrorist attacks and air strikes in Afghanistan.
Traditionally, the Emmy Awards telecast is used as a platform for the televising network to hype its fall schedule, but the delays made it impossible for CBS to capitalize on that opportunity this year.
CBS also has the Country Music Association Awards, an "I Love Lucy" 50th anniversary special, a Carol Burnett reunion and concerts by Michael Jackson and 'N Sync. The Jackson show is a compilation of performances from his two-night stand at Madison Square Garden in September.
Fox has been subjected to some ridicule on sports talk radio, from cynics who find it unseemly that the network superimposes ads for its TV shows and movies on a blue screen behind home plate. Still, baseball viewers can probably tell you that Fox is the network of "Ally McBeal," "The Tick" and other shows that have been prominently featured in camera shots showing pitchers delivering the ball to batters.
Lucy Lawless and Cary Elwes will appear in the two-part season premiere of "The X-Files" on Fox, Nov. 11 and 18. And Fox has one of the bigger weapons ever rolled out during sweeps month, the TV premiere of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" on Nov. 25.
NBC is going with prestige this Sunday and Monday, presenting the miniseries, "Uprising," based on stories of Jewish resistance fighters against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
Fans of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on UPN will see an oddity next Tuesday -- a musical episode. UPN also plans an Iron Chef special as part of its sweeps programming.
On the final night of sweeps, NBC does the network equivalent of lighting the national Christmas tree with its annual telecast of "Christmas in Rockefeller Center," featuring appearances by Marc Anthony, Tony Bennett, Destiny's Child, Jessica Simpson and Vanessa Williams.
After that, the networks will return you to their regular programming -- until the next sweeps, coming in February.