LET'S END TV'S SWEEPS GAME; FALLON'S YEAR

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The cornerstone of selling local TV time is the monthly "sweeps" ratings period, in which local broadcasters pretend the ratings they garner with all their stunting and special programming are typical of their usual audience size.

It's not at all typical, of course, and as broadcasters become more sophisticated in the use of stunts, contests, games and other non-typical promotions, they only widen the difference between sweeps results and actual non-sweeps viewing levels.

Agencies and their clients know this, but until now there's been no easy way to combat it. Every year the numbers for May come in, and every year sponsors pay rates pegged to those artificially hyped levels even during the June rerun season. The rash of blatant promotions by a few broadcasters in the past few sweeps has heightened the controversy, and with good reason. Why should advertisers pay for viewers lured in by one-time contests when those viewers won't be there during next month's regular programming?

Now comes word, first reported by Advertising Age in last week's issue, that Nielsen Media Research is considering continuous measurement in local markets. It's a move long sought by ad agencies and the major broadcast TV networks, which appear willing even to discuss the higher price such a service would require.

This is a shift long overdue. If Nielsen's costs are reasonable, then it clearly benefits almost all participants. That includes the public, incidentally, who broadcasters are training to pay attention only during a few months out of the year. Reruns once ran during the summer; now they appear before and after most sweeps months. The best programming is hoarded to hype the numbers in November, February and May. It's a clear invitation to cable programmers to grab viewers the other nine months, and it is exactly the strategy many cable networks follow.

Yet as short-sighted as local broadcasters appear about this point, it's clear they have a lot invested in the current system. Not only have they grown accustomed to getting higher ad rates year-round than are really justified, they also save money by being able to compress the bulk of their promotional spending into a few specific sweeps periods.

It's been a nice ride, but broadcasters shouldn't continue to profit from this game of pretend. They should move to continuous measurement as soon as feasible, and make broadcast programming a year-round activity again. In the end, it will only make broadcasting stronger.

Agency creatives are fond of saying, "Let the work speak for itself." Fallon McElligott did and Advertising Age editors listened, voting nearly unanimously to name Fallon 1995's Agency of the Year. From work for long-time clients such as Lee Apparel and Timex to newer accounts BMW and Coca-Cola, the agency raised the bar for competitors and itself, becoming only the fourth two-time winner in the award's 23 years.

In 1983, Fallon McElligott Rice won on the strength of its out-of-the-box print ads. In 1995, Fallon McElligott's win again reflects highly regarded print work, now joined by catchy and effective TV and strong integrated marketing. The result: a remarkable string of new business as Fallon reeled in major assignments from Prudential, Ameritech Corp., McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola and BMW.

While other mid-size agencies are being gobbled up by the behemoths, Fallon, which bought back its independence from WPP Group in 1993, proves there are times when it pays to go it alone.

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