Networks are heating up potboilers for 'sweeps' period
The February ''sweeps'' are here. You can tell by the increased volume of soap, sex, and violence on network television and the upsurge of suddenly ''relevant'' sex-oriented investigations on local news shows.
In case the word ''sweeps'' elicits literary visions of Dickensian chimney sweeps in some minds, let me hasten to explain that in February the ratings services carefully scrutinize viewer habits and, based on these ''sweeps'' of household viewing, advertising rates for local stations are determined for the next three-month period. Then, in May, there is another ''sweeps'' period. And so on.
Thus, this month you may be seeing a five-segment investigation of teen-age prostitution in your area on the 5 o'clock news. And on network television you will be seeing some blockbuster ''audience grabber'' miniseries, most often based upon best-selling pop novels which used to be acceptable only as summer beach reading - before authors like Thomas Thompson, Shirley Conran, and Sidney Sheldon started to be taken seriously by miniseries mavens.
Unfortunately without benefit of beach, I have just managed to preview all or part of February's three major potboiler miniseries: Thomas Thompson's ''Celebrity'' (NBC, Feb. 12 9-11:30 p.m.; 13 and 14 9-11 p.m.); Sidney Sheldon's ''Master of the Game'' (CBS, Feb. 19, 20, and 21 8-11 p.m.); and Shirley Conran's ''Lace'' (ABC, Feb. 26 8-11 p.m.; 27 9-11 p.m.). They are all eminently worthy . . . of a place in the sand.
NBC's ''Celebrity'' is, perhaps, the quintessential ''sweeps'' miniseries. It is based on a best seller, includes lots of sex and violence, peeks at life styles among the rich and famous, and starts with teen-agers and goes through middle age, thus appealing to all segments of the audience. And to top it off, there is even a smidgen of philosophy: ''There's not a thing so foolish and so false as common fame.''
An early rape hangs over the heads of three Fort Worth, Texas, high school buddies, known as The Princes of Power, Temptation, and Charm, who grow up to become an author, an actor, and the Chosen - a revival preacher. Each ''makes it'' in life in his own way and all make magazine covers - Life, Time, and Newsweek. There is, of course, retribution in the end for all concerned. But, in the meantime, there is lots of romp-and-roll activity for all.
The three men are played by Michael Beck, Joseph Bottoms, and Ben Masters, and all do just about as well as can be expected, considering Paul Wendkos's by-the-numbers direction. The script by William Hanley is no more simplistic in its pseudo-Freudian interpretations than was the novel.
''Celebrity'' keeps repeating in various ways its basic judgment about celebrity: ''Statues of famous men are nothing but dumping grounds for pigeons.'' And ''Rich and famous is what it's all about, getting and spending.''
What is ''Celebrity'' all about? Getting and spending, too. Getting audiences for advertisers; spending your time. ''Celebrity'' is easy to watch, and once you start it may be difficult to stop. But keep in mind that you will be spending seven hours of your own valuable time.
'Master of the Game'
Only a very rough cut of ''Master'' was ready for my press deadline, so I was able to screen only the first three hours and sample the rest. Unfortunately, the first three-hour segment did not include any of the performance of Dyan Cannon, who enters the story in the second generation as the daughter of a Scottish diamond prospector. Born after after the prospector's death in Africa, she inherits his vast South African fortune.
Miss Cannon, however, is in the opening sequence - before the flashbacks start - as an old woman. And the bits and pieces I saw of her later on reveal an actress with a wide-ranging style.
Produced by Norman Rosemont, noted for his lavish versions of classics such as ''The Man in the Iron Mask,'' ''Master'' is beautifully mounted and gorgeously photographed, mostly on African locations. The morality of its main characters reflects the harsh primitive morality of Early Money, so once again there is lots of sex and violence to answer the alleged need of such ''audience grabbers.''
''Master'' is not all schlock by any means: It takes a simplistic, although mainly sympathetic, look at the plight of black Africans. It also worries about the plight of the rich and famous, poor darlings.
Once again, ''sweeps'' month viewers will have to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to turn over so many hours of their lives to such a show.
Strangely enough, ''Lace'' has the same basic plot as ''Celebrity.'' Although in this case it is the story of three women at a finishing school, learning the joys, if not the responsibilities, of sex. When one of them becomes pregnant they swear eternal friendship . . . and eternal secrecy about which of them is the mother of the illegitimate daughter given out for adoption.
The daughter grows up to be a porno queen and seeks to avenge herself on whichever of them is her mother and she sets out to shame them all . . . especially her mother.
A trio of beautiful women - Bess Armstrong, Brooke Adams, and Arielle Dombasle - play the three with varying degrees of soap-opera believability in roles ranging from Early Feminist to Late Lush. Phoebe Cates is as sexily nasty as anyone could be as the smoldering exotic daughter. And you won't believe Angela Lansbury for a moment as she camps it up in the part of a thick-accented (is it French or Hungarian or Martian?) Aunt Hortense.
Director Billy Hale does the best he can with a sudsy script by Elliott Baker , who, after all, had to depend upon the novel by Shirley Conran.
In its finishing-school sequences, ''Lace'' reeks of repressed sexuality; in its posh locations later on in the lives of its women, the repression turns into promiscuity. So, you see, it is apparent that ''Lace'' has what it takes to succeed on commercial television during the ''sweeps.''
Before you decide to watch any of these long-form dramas remember that, pleasurably mindless as the hours may be, you are in effect turning over a big chunk of your life to the network schedulers who are in the business of providing ''warm bodies'' (you, the viewers) to advertisers. If they can keep you by stretching a miniseries for nine hours instead of the mere two or three hours the material is worth, they will do it.