Instead of a parade of movies, miniseries and specials, a TV sweeps month now brings a parade of guest stars. Which pretty much makes a sweeps month like any other month in guest-crazy network TV.
Sweeps arrive with less hoopla now that Nielsen People Meters measure local stations' ratings (how many people are watching) and demographics (who are those people?) year-round in most markets.
The broadcast networks still try to make a splash in a sweeps month, though, aiming at least for bragging rights and at most for momentum that will carry over into the rest of the season.
The difference is in the way they make that splash. The days of showy miniseries such as "Roots" (1973) and "Lonesome Dove" (1989) are long gone, victim of cost cutting and shrinking attention spans. And made-for-TV movies are now almost entirely left to cable networks like Lifetime and Hallmark, as broadcasters find that their audiences prefer new episodes of favorite series to intrusive events.
But the television landscape is a very cluttered place these days, with five broadcast networks, plus PBS, and dozens of cable channels all producing original programming and competing for viewers' attention.
How to grab the spotlight? Cast a very special guest star, someone unexpected (Justin Bieber on "CSI") or especially famous (Matt Damon on "Entourage" and "30 Rock") or lovably attention-getting (Lisa Kudrow and Jennifer Aniston on pal Courteney Cox's "Cougar Town").
Britney Spears did "How I Met Your Mother" and then turned up on "Glee." Ann-Margret won an Emmy for "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." The ubiquitous Betty White went back to school for "Community."
Almost nobody is too big for TV. Oprah Winfrey did "30 Rock," and Julianne Moore had a long arc as Jack's girlfriend on that show at the same time she was winning acclaim for the big-screen drama "A Single Man." Gwyneth Paltrow is set for "Glee" (Nov. 17), and Javier Bardem may follow.
Shows as different as "NCIS" (where Robert Wagner has turned up) and "Gossip Girl" (which attracted Wallace Shawn and Cyndi Lauper) regularly tout their guest lineups. The boldest guest-casting move this year came from "CSI," which signed tween sensation Bieber to play a troubled youth in the season premiere. Bieber nation isn't exactly the "CSI" demographic, but the singer could wind up winning an Emmy for his efforts.
Other stars just want to have fun, the way Bob Hope and John Wayne did when they joined friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in episodes of "I Love Lucy." Amy Ryan had just been nominated for an Oscar for "Gone Baby Gone" when she took a recurring role on "The Office." Olivia Newton-John relished spoofing herself on "Glee," as did Al Gore on "30 Rock."
Chosen wisely and used judiciously, guest stars can bring a show the right kind of attention. Otherwise, the guest becomes a gimmick, sweeps month or not.