7 Worst Moments of February TV Sweeps

LOS ANGELES (TheStreet) -- A bit of special-guest-star, special-episode, special-reality-show-launch showmanship is to be expected during sweeps month, but a little shame isn't too much for audiences to ask for.

This month, just as in May, July and November, Nielsen hands out little paper diaries to sample homes in its 210 test markets and lets households riff about what they've watched that week. The goal is to see what's most popular, set local ad rates for each program and try to bleed those advertisers dry. The result is a hypercompetitve week when the folks at CBS ( CBS) realize you're watching Chuck on NBC, House on Fox ( NEWS), The Bachelor on ABC ( DIS) or even a re-airing of The 40-Year-Old Virgin on Comedy Central, but hope that a special episode of How I Met Your Mother starring Katy Perry -- you know, the fetching young lady who sings about kissing girls and melting popsicles -- will draw you to their network for a night and inflate their sweeps rating enough to balance the books for yet another quarter.

Yes, Justin Bieber will be on a sweeps-week edition of CSI -- a sweet callback for his fans to the CSI season finale starring Justin Bieber they also didn't watch.

Is it really that important? Not in a revolution-in-Egypt way, but after a year in which total spending on advertising rose 6.4%, to more than $94 billion, in the first nine months -- including an 8.7% spike in the third quarter alone, according to ad tracker Kantar Media -- it's a big step towards post-recession recovery for the television industry. According to SNL Kagan, cable television lost 4% of its ad revenue from 2008 to 2009, with broadcast ads dropping 7.7% and local affiliates' ad take plummeting 22.4%. Kantar, however, saw spot TV ads surge 27.8% last year, with cable TV (9%) and network TV (6.1%) also posting ad gains.

That's translated to some programming masterstrokes this winter -- HBO's ( TWX) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's play The Sunset Limited with Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, NBC bringing Dana Carvey back to host Saturday Night Live, Glee hauling out big guns such as Michael Jackson's P.Y.T., Perry's Firework and Wings' Silly Love Songs for its Valentine's episode -- but it's also reminded us that winter is a dark, punishing, seemingly endless season. Kind of like sweeps.

With that in mind, we share with you seven of the worst sweeps gimmicks we've seen since, well, November:

7. Hayden Panettiere is Amanda Knox
Perpetrator: Lifetime and its made-for-TV movie Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy airing Feb. 21
How do you handle the story of a young woman who was one of three people convicted of sexual assault and murder in an extremely sensitive case still in the middle of a highly emotional appeals process?

If you're Lifetime, you basically ignore the dead girl and the other two people involved and focus solely on the girl from the U.S., cast the cheerleader from that one-good-season-and-two-unwatchable-ones NBC show Heroes and treat it with the same melodramatic "gravity" you afford all of your women-in-trouble films -- angering everyone in the process. Knox told her stepfather she "felt like she was going to throw up" after seeing the film's trailer. Knox's lawyers are trying to stop the movie from airing. And the father of slain British student Meredith Kercher has called Lifetime's reenactment of his daughter's killing "absolutely horrific."

The producer, however, says the script is fair and balanced and wants to go on with the show. As for Ms. Panettiere, one can only wonder if she'd even be involved in this mess if the 2007-08 writers' strike hadn't torpedoed her most successful show. It looks like the cheerleader could use saving yet again.

6. The three reality shows of the apocalypse ride again
Perpetrators: ABC's The Amazing Race, CBS' Survivor and Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York City
If ever there was an illustration of the sweeps life cycle, it's these three shows.

Loathed though they may be for their part in coarsening American pop culture, The Real Housewives of New York City are coming off of the best ratings in their three-season history. The series averaged 2.02 million total viewers, while its June finale snagged an audience of 2.64 million -- a 30% improvement over the previous year's finale. The show is very much of its zeitgeist, with the petty squabbling, fighting and overall boorish behavior of its moneyed matrons on par with anything their Orange County, New Jersey and Atlanta cohorts have to offer and giving audiences a peek at what the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore has to look forward to when it grows up.

Contrast that with Survivor, which in its 22nd season (but only its 12th year) continues a sticky slide to irrelevance that peaked in 2001 when Survivor: The Australian Outback was the No. 1 show in America, averaging nearly 30 million viewers a night. While still regularly within the Top 20 -- with Survivor's Heroes and Villains reaching No. 9 among Nielsen's 10 most popular regularly aired shows of last year -- viewership has been below 13 million for the past three years, with ratings for the finale down from 21 million five years ago to just over 13 million last season.

At least that show was as topical and relevant as the Real Housewives once. The Amazing Race is entering its 18th season (in its 11th year) of the same inoffensive globetrotting mediocrity that's kept viewership hovering around 10 million for nearly a decade. Race you to the middle!

5. Glee's Super Bowl bust
Perpetrators: Fox's Glee, but mostly just Fox
Glee's Valentine's Day episode was as awesome by the same measure as the decision to follow up the Super Bowl with an episode of Glee was terrible. Yes, it drew 26.8 million viewers, was the highest-rated Glee ever and was the highest-rated telecast of a scripted show in two years, but its audience was 31% less than the 38.7 million CBS' Undercover Boss drew in the same slot last year.

We're sure the cheerleader-style rendition of Katy Perry's California Gurls sounded just fine to the Super Bowl fans who stuck around to hear it, but considering it fared only slightly better than an episode of The Office that ran post-Super Bowl two years ago, networks should get the message and stop throwing their smart, funny shows with decidedly non-sporty appeal to the lions. In fact, since NBC drew 52.6 million viewers by airing an episode of Friends after the game in 1996, ratings for that Super Bowl follow-up slot have slid steadily -- mostly because networks have patently refused to air the kind of brain-dead, big-tent reality show a Super Bowl audience would love since CBS followed through with Survivor All Stars back in 2004.

Have Fox programmers ever been to high school? If you want to attract a jock audience to your after-party, don't invite the glee club.

4. The Office reaches 'Threat Level Midnight'
Perpetrators: Office writer and actor B.J. Novak
Aren't shows supposed to wrap up before there's a reunion special? We realize The Office's sixth season last year produced the second-smallest average viewership (7.8 million, second only to the first season's 5.4 million) in the show's history and that Steve Carell and his office-leading Michael Scott will be gone after this season, but turning a minor plot point from the second season into your deus ex machina for getting the gang back together in the Feb. 17 episode seems like a reach by a show nearing the end of its life cycle.

Five years ago, the office found a copy of their boss' screenplay for a movie called Threat Level Midnight -- featuring Agent Michael Scarn -- and staged an impromptu reading. Five years later, the employees will apparently get a screening of that film, with former Office cast members Rashida Jones (Karen), David Denman (Roy), Melora Hardin (Jan) and Andy Buckley (David Wallace) reprising their roles.

This is all going to be a little too meta for any newbies the show's hoping to drag over for sweeps, but it seems aimed more toward Office fans who've abandoned the show over the past season or so. You know what prevents them from doing that in the first place? Wrapping up your series in a timely fashion -- the British office only needed two seasons and two extended-length holiday specials to say its piece -- and not exhausting every wedding (Jim and Pam), baby (Jim and Pam) and new cast member (Ed Helms' Andy, Ellie Kemper's Erin) gimmick in TV history to keep your show on life support.

3. Hawaii Five-O gets Cooked
Perpetrators: ABC
There's nothing we can say about the brovangelical Dave Matthews of comedy, Dane Cook, that Slate didn't say better more than four years ago, so let's stick to ABC. We could understand this move if Hawaii Five-O was in the ratings toilet and swirling or if it was just one demographic away from moving to the head of the pack, but -- in Cook parlance -- that show's crushing it.

The show started strong and won the first month of the 2010-11 season and is still putting in an impressive showing -- drawing 11 million viewers last week to ABC's second-place Castle's 9.3 million. We know Five-O star Scott Caan's a bit of a fixture in bro culture himself after his roles in Varsity Blues and the Ocean's series, but pairing him with the shiny, unshaven face of America's most-drunk, least-loved subcultures and someone whose own hometown of Boston named him the worst comedian of all time seems more masochistic than binding the audience to its seats, force-feeding them Pabst Blue Ribbon and making them to listen to Cook's four albums on repeat.

2. Matt Dillon and who?
Perpetrators: ABC's Modern Family
Wow, so you scored Matt Dillon for sweeps week? Rumble Fish, Outsiders, There's Something About Mary, Crash -- that Matt Dillon? Man, what a coup. Now tell us a bit about this Shelly Long person. She was on a really famous sitcom that ended 20 years ago. Right. Audiences didn't like her then and she quit the show early to do film? Uh-huh. What's she been in? Oh, I loved Tom Hanks in The Money Pit. That singer from Rilo Kiley was in Troop Beverly Hills, wasn't she? That Brady Bunch movie was on TBS the other night. Anything since the '90s?

Well, Matt Dillon ... that's still something.

1. Leave it to Bieber
Perpetrators: CBS and swarms of screeching followers
In case you didn't know, Justin Bieber, 16, has a few albums, a doll, a line of nail polish and a newly released biopic about the 16 toughest years of his life (his hometown in Canada was so small that he needed to be pried out with the Jaws of Life, the video he made when he was 12 almost wasn't seen, someone somewhere told him he couldn't have something he wanted).

In case this slipped your notice and you missed his Best Buy ( BBY) Super Bowl ad and myriad talk show appearances, he'll be returning to the small screen to play a troubled teen in the Feb. 17 episode of CSI. The last time he did this, during CSI's season finale, he drew 14.6 million viewers.

Sadly for Bieber and his merch-buying public, the last season's finale drew roughly the same crowd, which was less than the 15.3 million watching an episode of CBS' The Mentalist the same night. Fans of the Canadian pop prince will usually take Bieber through any medium they can get him, but there's a limit to that loyalty. Apparently watching grandpa's favorite show is it.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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