GLOBAL BRIEF: Hot plots boost US TV ratings - But media buyers are not fooled by the programme stunts, Richard Cook says

Last week, the BBC announced its Christmas programming line-up.

Last week, the BBC announced its Christmas programming line-up.

The soaps will enjoy a festive overhaul, with seasonal storylines and

plenty of good cheer, even on EastEnders. In short, the BBC will be

taking its Christmas ratings seriously. And with good reason - last

year’s top show, an Only Fools and Horses Christmas special, attracted

more viewers than any programme in ratings history.

But the problem with Christmas is that it only happens once a year. Not

something that need concern American couch potatoes -Christmas comes to

US viewers three times a year. There’s the holiday itself, then,

pre-eminently, there’s the bi-annual ’Nielsen sweeps’.

The first of these exercises by the US programme ratings giant took

place at the end of last month.

Nielsen monitors the performance of prime-time shows over the week in

fantastic detail, and produces figures which, in theory at least, form

the media buying currency for the next six months.

It’s more incentive to show off than the US television industry


This month’s effort, though, was spectacular even by the prevailing


Ellen’s ratings peaked last year for a special in which its heroine came

out as a lesbian. The defining screen kiss, however, was chaste enough

to offend few American viewers. Since then, though, it has seemed Ellen

was not merely a lesbian, but a lesbian with a severely depressed

libido. A couple of tender moments aside, the character’s sexuality has

been pushed firmly back into the closet. Until sweeps week, of


Emma Thompson appeared for a hyped instalment as Ellen’s would-be lover.

This time, the encounter came complete with what Thompson described as a

’good old-fashioned snog’.

Other stunts included an episode of the Seinfeld show that ran backwards

and a pastiche of the film, the Full Monty.

Do they work? Unfortunately, the stunts and specials have become so

outrageous that the media buying community is becoming hardened to any

ratings anomalies.

But for the viewers, well, it’s just like Christmas.


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