WHEN Murphy Brown had her baby on TV last year, it happened in May. That controversial episode of the popular CBS series aired during the same month the network offered a show about a woman who takes things into her own hands when her daughter is raped and murdered, and her attacker is acquitted.
Over on NBC around the same time, one miniseries focused on a woman who was beaten and stabbed, her husband killed, and her 20-year-old son made a suspect. On another NBC show, Geraldo Rivera guest-starred as a talk-show host who was murdered after his autobiography came out, one containing shocking details of his affairs with several prominent women. Not to be outdone, ABC aired a miniseries about the mother of a high school student who takes up with her son's friend and persuades him to murder her husb and.
Three times a year, you can count on shows like these popping up to remind us of what network TV programming is really all about: racking up ratings - and forget about everything else. It happens during something called "sweeps" month, when audience measurements are taken that will determine future advertising rates. And May, in case you were in any doubt, is one of those months.
Networks always want maximum viewership, of course, but at other times of the year their fervor is occasionally tempered or even countered. But during sweeps, a hyped-up version of the ratings game is played. On-air promos for upcoming shows have circus-barker tone: "Step right up - inside this tent you'll see things you never thought you'd see!" When sweeps ratings returns come in, successes are excitedly publicized.
Now that it's May again, what do the networks think viewers will flock to? Let's see.... ABC will air "Wild Palms," a three-part miniseries promoted as "a mind-bending mixture of horrifying drama, deadbeat realism, and hallucinatory soap opera." A little later in the month, ABC is also offering "Deadly Relations," in which an obsessively controlling father's rage turns to murder. Tonight, NBC airs "Visions of Murder" about "a psychotherapist caught in a web of suspicion and intrigue when one of her patie nts is found murdered." Next, that network offers "The Black Widow Murders," featuring "a beautiful church-going woman ... who murdered her first husband and a boyfriend with arsenic poisoning, and nearly killed her second husband, a minister, the same way."
"Murder in the Heartland," on CBS earlier this week, was a two-part orgy of murder and teenage sex that told the true story of Charles Starkweather, who killed 11 people in 1958. Later in the month, another CBS two-parter deals with "a woman's obsessive web leading to love and murder." It's based on Ben Green's 1992 book, "The Soldier of Fortune Murders," but - not content even with that wording's shock potential - CBS has changed the title to "When Love Kills: The Seduction of John Hearn."
It's just business, I suppose, and some may ask what else can be expected from a system that turns public channels over to profitmaking companies whose prosperity depends on how many people tune in - never mind to see what, or who gets left out in the process. Yet it does remind you of what's missing: a diet of shows created with varied interest groups in mind, not delivered in self-serving bursts of lurid, "fact-based" stories from police files. Is it too much to ask of networks not to have a concentrat ion of repeats and other lesser material dumped on us in April, then have to go through this manic period in May, and then go back to who-knows-what in June?
Let's concede, meanwhile, that not all the come-ons are like that. Last year, NBC garnered good ratings with the finales of "The Cosby Show" and "The Golden Girls." For May 20, NBC has fashioned a "Cheers" finale that taps all the residual affection and admiration for that classic, witty sitcom. NBC aired the last episode of the inventive "Quantum Leap" May 5. And ABC ushers out the wonderful "Wonder Years" with a one-hour episode May 12.
Come to think of it, the May sweeps may be a little less egregious than they were last year. But I still know when I'm being hustled. Sweeps comes up again in November and in February. How about giving us more of a break next time?