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Sweeps: Time For A Promotion?

Morning show segments featuring anchors interviewing the star of the network's most popular show are not rare events -- one of the "Desperate Housewives" on ABC's "Good Morning America," a fired cast member of "The Apprentice" on NBC's "Today" or the latest "Survivor" to be deported on CBS's "The Early Show". Criticism of this type of content, of course, is not rare either.

Still, watching "The Early Show" last week, I noticed that there seemed to be more of this kind of material than usual. It also happened to be the beginning of May "sweeps," which began April 27 and run through May 24. Sweep periods, as you may know, are the times each year when Nielsen Media Research calculates the ratings of the country's local television markets, ratings which are used to determine advertising rates. The more people who show up to watch during that period, the more advertisers can be charged for air time.

During the first week of May on "The Early Show," as part of "Super-sized 'CSI' Week," which had begun April 27, each day of the week featured interviews with stars of the various iterations of the popular CBS drama. Monday's show also featured a preview of the following night's CBS special, "'Dynasty' Reunion: Catfights and Caviar." In addition to Tuesday's "CSI" interview, the show also included a regular series, "Rob To The Rescue," in which former "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," contestant Rob Mariano helps "Early Show" viewers "deal with real-life problems". Along with Wednesday's "CSI"

, Anthony LaPaglia, star of CBS's "Without A Trace," also appeared for an . On Friday, along with an of two "CSI" stars, ex-"Survivor" Shane Powers appeared for an interview and a from "Survivor" was aired.

Over the course of the week, "The Early Show" spent a total of about 41 minutes of programming on segments with tie-ins to other CBS entertainment shows. Compare that to a total of approximately 24 minutes spent on similar segments during the first week of April.

Other networks' morning shows feature much of the same cross-promotion during sweeps. On NBC last Friday, actor Jerry O'Connell was on "Today" to discuss his NBC drama, "Crossing Jordan." And this week, David Blaine, whose aquatic display in Lincoln Center was the subject of a two-hour primetime special on ABC, was also the subject of numerous segments on "GMA."

Of course, what is and isn't promotional is a subjective judgment. For instance, I included in the above tallies two segments on "The Early Show" -- one during the first week of May (you can watch it

) and another during the first week of April (you can watch it ) -- that are tied in with the CBS drama "Without A Trace." During "Without A Trace," viewers are shown a photograph of a real missing person – "The Early Show" produces a piece about that person (or persons.) While it's tied in to a CBS show, senior executive producer of "The Early Show," Michael Bass doesn't view it as a promotional vehicle, but a public service. "It's mentioned and identified with 'Without A Trace' because it's on CBS -- people saw the slide of a missing person the previous night," Bass told me. Beyond that, said Bass, it's a "self-contained piece" that makes the public aware of a missing person.

Walking the line between news and entertainment, information and promotion is something that every network news division struggles with. And the standards for what is appropriate differ among different types of newscasts – it's probably fair to say that a "Survivor" contestant will not be interviewed on the "Evening News" anytime soon. But even on the morning shows, where this type of content has become a standard part of the programming, is there a point when it crosses the line? We asked Bass, who said he is conscious of the concern and of making sure viewers know that "we are not just all about CBS shows."

"There is a line … we don't want to be shills," he said, "but that line is a subjective thing."

Bass emphasized that the amount of time spent on segments like interviews with "CSI" stars is small compared to the overall length of the broadcast, and the amount of CBS-related content last week was part of a special "CSI Week" series. As far as last week went, he didn't feel a line was crossed. "I don't really know the amount of time that it would take to cross the line," he added. "Probably to a purist it would be one minute."

The "CSI" content was an "enhancement for viewers," said Bass. Other segments like the "Survivor" secret scene are "a bonus" for fans of "Survivor," said Bass. "It's something they won't see anywhere else and we hope will make them say, 'Wow, that's interesting.'"

Bass is not shy about acknowledging that the material is promotional, but he notes that promotion isn't its only value. "A lot of what we do could be construed as purely promotional," said Bass. "Yes, it is promotional, but it's not just about promotion."

Bass cited "The Early Show's" interview last Thursday with "CSI" star William Peterson (you can watch it

) as an example of "an enhancement for a fan of CSI" because it was a look behind the scenes, something that "CSI" fans would probably find interesting.

As far as increasing that type of content during sweeps, Bass said that "The Early Show" does do special features for sweeps, like the "CSI Week" feature, because it's an important period for local stations. But he added that "for morning shows, every week is sweeps." Because the competition among the shows is so intense, sweeps week is important, but it's not a substantial consideration. If there was a marked increase in viewers among the shows during any period during the year, he said, it would be just as important as such an increase would be during sweeps. "We're always glad to do something with our friends at CSI," he said. "They love the extra promotion and we love to attach ourselves to the number one drama in primetime."

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