Sweeps Month Doesn't Bring Out the Best

Under normal circumstances, November is the time of year when you grab your TV's remote control and throw it out the nearest open window. It's a time of particularly egregious excess. Bad taste. Vulgarity. The reason is, it's a “sweeps” month — the time local ad rates are set in cities around the country. The more viewers they can draw in for any given show, the more they can charge advertisers for a “slot.”

This means it's also a time when financial interests take precedence over everything else. And that means everything else.

The good news is, this year sees a slight break from “normal circumstances.” It seems the networks — feeling pressured to present something valuable to families, overlooked in the mad rush to court younger viewers over the past several fall seasons — will actually have a few offerings that won't insult the intelligence or offend the moral sensibilities.

Let's not get too excited: The bulk of quality programming will air on PBS (as usual), which has some truly outstanding specials lined up to celebrate its 30th anniversary (which officially takes place Nov. 3). Also, one major network movie will be of interest to Catholics, NBC's “Mary, Mother of Jesus,” which will attempt to cast the Virgin Mary as something of a modern-day woman, burdened by stress and domestic concerns. “Mary, Mother of Jesus” is at the vanguard of a handful of upcoming network movies on Jesus, several of which will air early next year. The movie self-consciously tries not to offend, and many Catholics will be happy to see the language of the Hail Mary restored in Gabriel's greeting to Mary. But don't expect the show to be an inspirational accompaniment to your family rosary.

Also, network schedules will be given over to experimentation of sorts this month. ABC's summer hit “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” returns on Sunday, Nov. 7, and will air week-nights at 8:30 (all times listed are Eastern) for two solid weeks (except Sundays, when it will air at 9). A programming stunt like this may be unprecedented in November. CBS, meanwhile, has filled its schedule with music specials and music-related miniseries. Of note, CBs' special on Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin (Friday, Nov. 26, at 8), Celine Dion (Wednesday, Nov. 24), and Shania Twain (Nov. 25.) There is also a musical miniseries — “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (Sunday, Nov. 7, at 9, and Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 9).

But, if you choose carefully, you'll be able to find some programming of genuine interest. Here's a sampling:


The Magical Legend of Leprechauns NBC, 9–11 p.m.

And now for a miniseries offering something completely different. Robert Halmi Sr. (the veteran TV producer of mega-special-effects movies and miniseries like “Gulliver's Travels” and “Noah's Ark”) heads to Ireland this time, but this movie is more palatable to younger tastes than past efforts. Jack Woods (Randy Quaid) is an American businessman who goes to Ireland to scope out a major land development deal. His home away from home is a charming, thatched-roof cottage, without electricity (“too far to carry it,” his landlord informs him), but with other unusual qualities. Woods eventually meets the real tenants of the house, 5-inch-tall Seamus Muldoon (Colm Meaney) and his family. Woods saves Muldoon from drowning and the little guy is forever in his debt. And so it goes. As usual, there are wild and wooly special effects (check out the headless horseman), but for the most part, Halmi serves up mostly harmless fun. But be warned: There are numerous battle scenes and the occasional “romantic moment” (TV euphemism for sex), all of which may be inappropriate for younger viewers. But the miniseries is worth checking out if only to see the verdant glorious Irish countryside.


Canyonlands: America's Wild West PBS, 8 p.m.

And speaking of natural glories, PBs' superb nature series “Living Edens” heads to Utah's Canyonlands this month. For those unfamiliar with this landscape, it is a harsh, severe and little-known place. The Grand Canyon, a couple of hundred miles to the south, commands more attention, but to those who appreciate such marvels, Canyonlands is, in its own way, just as grand.

Meanwhile on PBS, the worthwhile “Nature,” entering its 18th season, began on Oct. 24 with a two-part special on Antarctica, which concludes Oct. 31 (both nights at 8 p.m.).


Apocalypse! PBS 9–11 p.m.

The public-broadcast network describes this two-hour offering as a look at “the origins of the Book of Revelation and how it has shaped Western ideas of the apocalypse.” A review cassette was not available, but the special is clearly part of TV's ongoing millennial frenzy (CNN is also airing a Sunday 10 p.m. millennial retrospective this month and next). Naturally, if Christians tune it at all, they should do so with an awareness that PBS is ill-equipped to deal seriously with theological issues from a standpoint of informed faith and reason.


Annie ABC, 7 p.m.

Here is another rare all-family program that also happens to be solid and well-produced, with newcomer Alicia Morton playing the role of Annie. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have dispensed with some of the more cartoonlike elements of the famed stage production, but the music (by Charles Strouse, with lyrics by Martin Charnin) remains the same.


Mary, Mother of Jesus NBC, 9–11 p.m.

This movie is a cherished project of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who has worked on it with son Bobby for three years. They're not generally noted as historians or theologians, let alone storytellers. In all likelihood, they'll try their best not to offend anyone except, perhaps, devout Catholics; don't be surprised if, in the process, they offer up some superficial blather that only serves to further confuse the masses about Catholic doctrine on the Mother of God.

As Kennedy Shriver said at a recent press event, “I think [Mary] has a message that she carries and I think she is a great symbol for the female side of the Church, the social activities of the Church. … But in all churches, I think she represents a common bond for women and she's very timely and very relevant to the young people who struggle with many of the problems she had.”

Bobby Shriver elaborated: “You've seen Jesus portrayed 5,000 different ways, but Mary is really generally portrayed in one way, and that's not the way it is in this movie.”


Life Beyond Earth PBS, 8–10 p.m.

This beautifully rendered production, written and produced by science writer Timothy Ferris, is well worth a visit, if only to catch the stunning, computer-generated graphics and photography of deep space. “Life” doesn't wander into the theological debate associated with its subject, but instead tracks the long scientific debate over life on distant worlds — whether it exists and, if so, in what variegated forms. Ferris, by the way, is an accomplished writer on the subject, and his book, “Coming of Age in the Milky Way,” remains popular a decade after publication.


New York PBS, 9–11 p.m.

And finally, the reason for keeping a TV handy this month, at least for lovers of America's biggest city. “New York” is said to be the biggest, grandest, most elaborate documentary on the city ever to be produced. At ten hours,

And finally, the reason for keeping a TV plugged in this month, at least for lovers of America's biggest city: “New York” is said to be the biggest, grandest, most elaborate documentary on the city ever to be produced.

At 10 hours, it is indisputably the longest. This program comes by way of Ric Burns, best known for being the brother of Ken (of PBs' “Baseball” and “The Civil War” fame). As it turns out, Ric is an excellent documentarian in his own right.

Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday.