The game is called "counterprogramming." The game board is a calendar called "the squares." The players are worried network programming executives. And network television shows are the pieces with which this high-stakes game is played.
Every day, ABC, NBC and CBS have to decide not only what to put on the air, but also when . And, like all the other games that TV people play, they play this one hardest during sweeps.
Counterprogramming is a kind of corporate tick-tack-toe--only the rules of this ultimate "Hollywood Squares" competition are exactly the opposite of those in the ordinary game. The networks line up three TV shows, all in a row in the same time period, but each network wants its own square to be as different as possible from the others.
With three networks counterprogramming each other, it's impossible to tell which comes first, the chicken or the egg or the other chicken--but each programming decision is made with the careful consideration of what's showing on the other networks.
For example, Sunday night pits ABC's Winter Olympics coverage against the first installment of NBC's miniseries "Noble House" against the CBS wild-card movie "Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis."
"You can get the sense that these shows are targeted to different audiences," said Paul Wang, NBC's vice president of program and media planning.
There is a certain futility to this counterprogramming game, especially during the glut of special programming that inevitably hits during sweeps.
"There are only so many (sweeps) weeks to schedule, and understand that there is no safe ground," said Peter Tortorici, CBS' vice president of scheduling and planning. "No matter when you schedule (a program), you're going to have to go up against some formidable competition."
But they play anyway. During a recent interview at the network's Century City offices, Ted Harbert, ABC's vice president of motion pictures and scheduling, hauled out a huge ledger filled with "the squares"--detailed daily charts of what's showing on each network, broken down by the half-hour.
"Yes, we worry quite a bit," Harbert deadpanned.
The networks do not simply throw on their biggest, flashiest and most expensive offerings opposite each other in order to beat the competitors, Wang said. Rather, the goal is to place programming that draws one type of viewer against programming with an opposite appeal so as not to split one's own slice of the audience pie.
"I think we're trying to schedule now for success rather than to damage the competition," Wang said. "We can't afford to be so generous and cavalier with our expensive programming as we might have been in the past to counter the other guy."
Take a look, for example, at this Very Big Square: the final big night of the February sweeps, Sunday, Feb. 28, from 9 to 11 p.m.
Featured on NBC is the made-for-TV movie "Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace," in which Raymond Burr, reprising his role as attorney Mason, defends a man he had sentenced to prison when he was an appellate court judge.
CBS will offer the first installment of "Bluegrass," a four-hour miniseries about a woman (Cheryl Ladd) who returns to her Kentucky hometown to, as the network press release puts it, "fulfill her dream of breeding, training and racing world-class thoroughbreds."
Meanwhile, ABC will present to most of the country live coverage of the final events and the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Winter Games.
(Because of the time difference, the live Olympics coverage will be seen from 6 to 8 p.m. on the West Coast, leaving ABC affiliates here to provide their own offerings at 9 p.m. Locally, KABC-TV Channel 7 will show the movie "Who'll Stop the Rain." It is the Olympics, however, around which the other networks are planning their counterprogramming strategies.)
NBC'S Wang and CBS' Tortorici said their networks considered the options carefully.
"The closing ceremonies is an attractive program, but generally has performed a little bit worse than the average for prime time during the Games because there is no (athletic) competition at that point," Tortorici said. "We wanted to give 'Bluegrass' the best opportunity to build its audience for the conclusion on Monday night."
NBC is equally confident that the closing ceremonies will be a weaker draw than the rest of the Olympics, Wang said. He noted that while the audiences for "Bluegrass" and "Perry Mason" may overlap slightly, since both are expected to attract more women than men, the "Bluegrass" audience would probably skew younger than the "Perry Mason" audience.
Although some Olympic events such as figure skating draw a large female audience, the Games as a whole are more popular with men. NBC and CBS executives noted that much of their sweeps counterprogramming, including "Noble House" and "Bluegrass," was selected because of its predicted appeal to women.
Tortorici noted that children can be another prime target for counterprogramming; that's what CBS has in mind for its Wednesday airing of "The Wizard of Oz" from 8 to 10 p.m., which will overlap the first hour of the conclusion of NBC's "Noble House" as well as an hour of ABC's Olympics.
ABC's Harbert pointed out that playing the squares means finding out the other teams' game plans as early as possible. At each network, at least one person is assigned to spy on the other guys, feeding in daily information on the other networks' plans gleaned from a grapevine of information from advertisers, sales representatives and daily bundles of news releases sent out to the press.
"The information is confidential, but it's not like getting into the Pentagon," said Wang.
John Barber, ABC's vice president of current programs, said information leaks out because the network sales departments need lead time to sell the shows.
"Once a sales department knows what the programming department is doing, it's out on the streets," he said. "It's sort of an unspoken but recognized and acknowledged way of finding out what the other guys are doing."
And although Harbert admitted that "we boys play games where we try to slip things in on the other guy," he said that it only pays to keep programming plans a secret for a while; otherwise they risk losing valuable time to promote the show--a more important goal than foiling the competition's counterprogramming efforts.
It is easier to delay the announcement of a theatrical movie such as "Rambo II," Harbert said, because that has the built-in promotion from its theatrical release. But waiting too long to announce the scheduling for a new TV movie such as ABC's "Elvis and Me," which aired Feb. 7, could spell death.
"We had to announce it eight to 10 weeks in advance," he said. "If we hadn't, we wouldn't have been able to get the TV Guide cover, and we wanted that cover."
Harbert said the networks must announce their programs at least 10 days in advance of air date to get a TV Guide listing, and at least 17 days in advance to place an ad. And "nobody goes without a TV Guide ad during sweeps," he said.