But this year is unusual.
First, ABC, CBS and NBC are extremely close, separated in prime time so far this season by an average of fewer than 500,000 households. Every show, every night, takes on added meaning.
Second, each network has adopted a different approach to victory this November. NBC (Channel 3) has a bucketful of made-for-TV projects scheduled on its movie nights, but few modifications elsewhere. ABC (Channel 6), with only one major special production, has modified many of its series with quirky plot twists. And CBS (Channel 10) is throwing all sorts of old chestnuts, as well as a couple of blockbuster theatrical features, into the fire.
Only two mini-series, normally a sweeps-month staple, are scheduled, and both are just four hours long: The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake, Nov. 11 and 12 on NBC; and Stephen King's IT, Nov. 18 and 20 on ABC.
For most local stations, Nielsen and Arbitron measure viewership four times a year - in November, February, May and July. To the networks, November's numbers are no more important than any other month's, but to their affiliates, bigger numbers now mean higher advertising fees for the next three months.
In one way, network and affiliate interests clash. If a network shuffles a show, national advertisers signed long in advance can cancel their contracts. That explains why NBC, top-rated last year, and ABC, second but with several demographically attractive and heavily booked shows like thirtysomething, China Beach and Twin Peaks, will do little schedule-tinkering until the end of the year.
But that hasn't stopped ABC from coming up with goofy plot gimmicks. Tomorrow, an "all-star" cast including Dick Butkus and Wendy O. Williams careen about in a MacGyver adaptation of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Later this month, the folks on Growing Pains will go to Europe for three episodes. Balki and Larry are pursued by good guys and bad guys when they witness a crime in a Perfect Strangers two-parter.
At NBC's Night Court, the staff is put in quarantine, allowing a two-part flashback plot.
Sometimes the stories turn serious. David finds out that his old friend has AIDS on the Nov. 17 episode of CBS's The Hogan Family. Rosie O'Neill suffers through a lonely Thanksgiving three days early, Nov. 19.
ABC has Thanksgiving plots planned on at least five shows: The Wonder Years; Doogie Howser, M.D.; Married People, Going Places and Life Goes On. On NBC, Parenthood and Fresh Prince of Bel Air are among programs that plan seasonal plots.
A common sweeps tricks is to bring famous guest stars, playing themselves in outrageously contrived plots, onto regular series. You may have missed Wayne Newton singing "Danke Schoen" on ABC's Full House Friday, but you're sure to want to catch Vice President Quayle on Major Dad tomorrow, basketball star Isiah Thomas on Fresh Prince of Bel Air Nov. 12 and talk-show host Larry King on Murphy Brown Nov. 19.
Everybody at CBS is excited that programming boss Jeff Sagansky will turn up Thursday on Doctor, Doctor. It's doubtful anyone else is. ABC, however, has one of the cleverest guest-star gigs of the month on Nov. 17, when Pernell Roberts, Bonanza's Adam Cartwright all those years ago, guest-stars on ABC's current western, The Young Riders.
CBS takes the critical booby prize for its special plans that night, when it leads off with Prime Time Pets and airs a Candid Camera with a fossilized Allen Funt at 9:30. A highlight: "Intensely serious college football players . . . throw their full force into a tackling dummy that has been secretly filled with shaving cream and rigged to explode on impact."
It's doubtful such dumbness will explode CBS's ratings, but the network is doing so poorly on Saturday nights that it's trying all sorts of things, including this season's Wiseguy premiere this Saturday, with new guy Steven Bauer replacing Ken Wahl.
CBS will even take the unheard-of step of premiering an entirely new series during a sweeps month. Broken Badges debuts Nov. 24. The network says it's about an "offbeat crime-fighting unit composed of cops temporarily on psychiatric leave."
Some of these other sweeps highlights sound as if they came from the loony bin, but there's some promising programming, too:
Tonight: 83 Hours 'Til Dawn (Channel 10, 9-11 p.m.) stars Peter Strauss and Robert Urich in a tense tale about kidnapping. Strauss buries the victim, Urich's daughter, alive. The Last Best Year (Channel 6, 9-11 p.m.) stars Mary Tyler Moore as a psychologist treating a terminally ill woman played by Bernadette Peters.
Next Sunday: CBS is showing Fatal Attraction at 9 p.m. on Channel 10. NBC counters with The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake (Channel 3, 9-11 p.m.) starring Joanna Kerns as a seismologist, Dan Luria as her husband and a bunch of special effects. Part 2 airs at the same time Nov. 12.
Nov. 12: The Honeymooners Anniversary Special (Channel 10, 10-11 p.m.) is hosted by Audrey Meadows with Art Carney and Joyce Randolph, and includes old interviews with Jackie Gleason, a re-creation of the Kramdens' kitchen and two ''Honeymooners" skits that haven't been seen since 1952. ABC may help Channel 6 to the highest local prime-time rating of the month when its Monday Night Football broadcasts the key Eagles-Redskins game from Veterans Stadium.
Nov. 14: A Barbara Walters Special (Channel 6, 10-11 p.m.) features Mel Gibson, Delta Burke and Shirley MacLaine.
Nov. 18: The CBS feature film is Moonstruck (Channel 10, 9 to 11:11 p.m.). The mini-series countering it is Stephen King's IT (Channel 6, 9-11 p.m.), starring Tim Curry, John Ritter, Harry Anderson, Tim Reid, Annette O'Toole and Richard Thomas in a tale of terror. Part 2 airs Nov. 20.
Nov. 19: Mary Tyler Moore returns, this time as the wife of Tony Curtis, who drops dead in the turkey in the "black comedy" Thanksgiving Day (Channel 3, 9-11 p.m.). She'll battle another excellent NFL game, the L.A. Raiders at Miami, on Channel 6.
Nov. 21: The good news on Channel 10 is The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, a musical entertainment special from 8 to 9 p.m. The bad news is the 15th annual Circus of the Stars from 9 to 11, featuring Morgan Brittany and her elephants, Dick Van Patten with three bears and David Soul taming eight - count 'em, eight - tigers.
Nov. 22: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward get a grilling on Face to Face With Connie Chung (Channel 10, 10-11 p.m.).
Nov. 25: Motown celebrates its 30th anniversary in a 9-to-11-p.m. special on Channel 10. The 25th was a corker.
There will also be some major series plot developments in November. Elizabeth has her baby on ABC's Married People. Dwayne and Whitley get serious about each other on NBC's A Different World. Jake and Fatman move back to Los Angeles. And Saturday on Twin Peaks, we find out who killed Laura Palmer.