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john doyle

Remember when the November sweeps period was a big deal? Sure you do. Back then, you probably got about 30 channels and thought life was good.

And speaking of November sweeps, life is good in the political news racket these days. The November sweeps have arrived early. Duffy and Ford: That's massive entertainment.

Anyway, November sweeps ain't what they used to be. Sweeps periods are, traditionally, when Nielsen goes to extra lengths to measure the audience for TV. Usually in the months of November, February, May and July, with November and July being the key periods. Nielsen would add more viewers to its sample. The ratings measured in the key period would set advertising rates for the ensuing months.

Thus, networks would pile on stunt casting, specials and crossover episodes to generate as much attention as possible and, hopefully, add viewers.

This year, here's the big announcement from Fox: "This November, Fox rushes to the end zone with massive television events, series premieres and season finales, as well as all-new episodes with big guest stars, including the two-part season finale of MASTERCHEF JUNIOR Nov. 1 and Nov. 8…"

That's a tad sad, really. "Major television events" mean that actor John Noble, a great favourite of the cultish show Fringe, makes an appearance in Sleepy Hollow. Also, Damon Wayans Jr. reprises the role of the character Coach on New Girl tomorrow (Fox, Global, 9 p.m.). That's nice. Because New Girl has declined into irritating, juvenile comedy, especially since Jess and Nick hooked up and now act like 12-year-old characters.

Meanwhile at ABC there's simply a big emphasis on music awards for the sweeps period, specifically the CMA Awards (Wednesday, ABC, 8 p.m.). Hosted by country stars Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, and featuring approximately 1,000 country-music performers, it's sure to be a hot hootenanny. But holler as they might, ABC isn't delivering anything truly special.

CBS ventures forth into the sweeps with more traditional tactics. On Thursday's The Big Bang Theory (CBS, CTV, 8 p.m.), Bob Newhart returns, reprising the guest role that finally won him an Emmy. He's back as childhood TV hero Professor Proton. But there's comic tension as Sheldon brings in PBS's TV science star Bill Nye. Two guest stars – that's more like November sweeps.

These days November sweeps mean less because the measurement of the TV audience has become far more complex. There's the PVR, online viewing and on-demand. You need a PhD to figure out how many people are watching and when and how.

Still, I miss the fandango of sweeps-period TV. The grotesque attempts to enliven a lame show, the bizarre attempts to cross one series with another. Sometimes they did achieve a ratings boost, which said as much about the audience as the network.

Airing Monday night

Cracked (CBC, 9 p.m.) was presented to me as an especially strong episode. And it is. Written by Laurie Finstad (Durham County), it uses the murders of aboriginal women and girls along the infamous "Highway of Tears" in northern B.C. as the basis for the story. It opens with an especially brutal scene. An armed native man emerges from the woods carrying a young woman who has been murdered. In custody the man appears to be totally remote but has a compelling power. Naturally, Detective Black (David Sutcliffe), who has his own horrors to deal with, feels particularly drawn to the man and the case. Not a great deal happens here and, in a way, that's what makes this a good episode. The true drama takes place in enclosed spaces, as cops and others try to deal with the emotional power and a level of grief they cannot comprehend. Worth your time, certainly.

All times Eastern. Check local listings.