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by Neena Louise
I think so-called "Sweeps" should be outlawed. Sweeps is the twice-a-year periods (November and May) when series air their supposedly "best" (usually just "gimmick-laden") episodes in order to get the highest ratings and, thus, set higher ad rates for the year. Every year, the new season seems to start later and later, and ends earlier and earlier, with repeats liberally sprinkled in between. With an average of only 22 episodes to fill a 52-week year, it's no wonder the season is so short! Series used to average 36 episodes a season. Then it was 30. Then 24. Now it's 22. Ten to twelve are used for sweeps, leaving, at most, 12 (count 'em) TWELVE for the other 40 weeks. The first reruns hit right after the start of the season in order to save the "best" for November sweeps. It's infuriating!

What is going on here? If you ask the networks, they blame the 22-episode season on high salaries for the stars. Nonsense! Consider the 22-minute half hour sitcom. That leaves 8 minutes (!) for ads, say $1 million per 30 seconds for a hit show, and that's 16 MILLION DOLLARS per half hour in ad revenue alone. Throw in syndication rights, product placement, merchandising and corporate tie-ins and the stars' salaries are - though an incomprehensible figure to someone like me - nothing in comparison. ABC has recently ordered producers of half-hour shows to trim another 30 seconds, leaving the half-hour a mere 21.5 minutes long - and up to another million dollars for ABC. Last season NBC started ER 30-60 seconds early (leaving viewers everywhere scrambling to reset their VCRs) in order to squeeze more ads in. Ads crawl over the closing credits. Actors obviously consume/mention products... Just how greedy can the networks get?

It used to be that a half hour show (which was at least 24 minutes long) had a commercial break after the opening teaser/credits, one half-way through, then another just before the closing credits (which were mercifully full-size and commercial-free). Now, there is a commercial break after the opening, two during, another just before the closing credits, then more over the closing credits. And just forget trying to watch a movie on network TV! They're sneaky about commercial breaks in movies. The first 15 or 20 minutes are commercial-free - just long enough to suck you in to wanting to watch the movie. Then you have to endure a commercial break every 7-10 minutes. And if it's not a made-for-TV movie, the cutting to commercial breaks is rarely in a sensible spot. It's as though someone with a stopwatch just - click - cuts to commercial, regardless of whether or not it means cutting someone off mid-sentence.

Networks wonder why viewership is down, and blame it on their programming. The actual programming is the least of it. It's everything else: the bugs, the constant commercial breaks, the tiresome reruns, the squished credits, the early start times... I, myself, no longer watch network TV. Well, I watch it, but only on tape. I usually watch commercial-free or commercial-lite cable and tape the network shows I like in order to fast-forward over the blatant, obnoxious, incessant cash grabs. Taped shows don't show up on the current ratings system. The networks ought to think about that. Maybe if they stopped angering their viewers so much, their ratings could be recouped.

A first step would be dispensing with Sweeps. At the very least, it would give consistent programming throughout the season and ad rates could be set on overall ratings, not just the ratings during Gimmicks - I mean - Sweeps weeks. If Sweeps didn't exist, perhaps the networks would be a little less conscious about how they absolutely "gotta-make-a-buck, gotta-make-a-buck" twice a year and could instead turn their attention to producing consistently good shows all season long and let the ratings - and advertising revenues - fall where they may. Like this will ever happen.  
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