FORUM: HOW TO CURB TV'S SWEEPS RATINGS GAME: BUYERS CAN EASE THE PROBLEM WITHOUT FOISTING COSTS ON STATIONS

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February is Nielsen Media Research's ratings sweep month and TV is awash in getting-viewers-quick schemes.

Every syndicated magazine program is doing a weeklong report featuring lingerie from Victoria's Secret; 250 stations run "view-and-win" contests. Competitors complain that contests skew the ratings.

"Of course," say executives in private. "Isn't that the point?"

In mid-1966, the manager-husband of a TV star, in league with a former congressional investigator who had gained access to the names and addresses of the Nielsen sample, conspired to fix the national Nielsen ratings. Nielsen found out and went ballistic. The tampering plot was thwarted.

Yet last year, 250 stations, and not quite as many TV networks, in league with the sweeps calendar, succeeded in fixing the local Nielsen ratings-with Nielsen's knowledge-as surely as if they had tampered with the Nielsen homes.

Realize that Nielsen samples weeks as well as people. Sweeps are the four four-week samples used to represent 52 weeks of viewing. "Hypoing"-running unusual contests or programs during the sweep period-is tampering with the Nielsen sample of weeks in order to bias the results of the survey. It cheats advertisers and stations.

AGENCIES WANT HYPOING STOPPED

Nielsen seems to treat hypoing as mischief, not fraud, so it has become a common practice. Stations and networks brazenly discuss strategies for beating the sweeps in the pages of the trade press.

Ad agencies want hypoing stopped and have called for stations to fund continuous local demographic measurement in all markets. They think stations are cheating, so stations should pay.

But the agencies are far from innocent. It's the vulnerability of the agency spot-buying system that invites tampering. It allows the least scrupulous stations to set the standard of behavior for a market.

All hypoing isn't an attempt to cheat. It's often the defensive act of stations that would rather not be doing it. The real issue is advertisers are being cheated, and it's the agency's fiduciary responsibility not to let that happen.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

There is a simple solution. Agencies have continuous measurement right now and are largely ignoring it. Nielsen produces week-by-week household ratings, 52 weeks a year in 36 markets (soon to be 39) containing 58% of TV homes (soon to be 60%) and 75% to 80% of national spot dollars.

Nielsen can easily meet the American Association of Advertising Agencies' minimum specs-four 13-week reports and the option of tabulating consecutive four-week averages-based on weekly metered market household ratings, for 75% of our spot buying, right now and for very little money.

These are not people ratings, but if you have four sweeps and 52 weeks of household ratings, you don't need 52 weeks of people ratings. (On average, about 85% of all the variation in viewer ratings is accounted for by variation in household ratings. And when household and viewer data sets don't track, the diary data are more likely wrong.)

Agencies can produce a sweep report for every week of the year by using sweep viewer-to-household ratios to estimate the demo ratings. And it's far simpler for continuous posting. All an agency has to do is track the station-by-station household ratings for the buy. To do all these good things, agencies merely have to convince Nielsen to reformat the weekly household ratings tape into a sweep tape format.

DATA IS AVAILABLE

Right now, every Nielsen agency has access to substantially the same data they are asking for. Thirty-five markets, 58% of the population, 75% to 80% of the spot dollars, right now. There's no need to wait for Nielsen, the networks, the stations or a miracle.

When agencies begin to use 52-week household data to buy and post spot in major markets, the incentive to run contests in these markets will disappear. It will also make network program hypoing, which affects prime time and late news in all markets, less attractive.

Agencies' failure to deal decisively with the sweeps problem, or take advantage of it, sends another message: They don't seem as motivated as the stations they're buying.

For example, if sweep ratings are systematically distorted by hypoing, and stations price on sweep ratings, the winning strategy is to use that knowledge to "buy against the sweeps," by selecting time periods that have been depressed by unusual programming, contests and promotions. You can do this in 35 markets. Smart network buyers use counterstrategies like this all the time, but I'm not aware of any spot buying group doing this systematically.

To the contrary. From my many failed attempts to get buying groups to use the 52-week household ratings they have, I'm convinced agencies are intimidated by the work involved to get the system up and running. Buyers want four clean sweep reports a year. They don't want complications.

Twenty years ago, an Advertising Research Foundation task force was formed to stop hypoing. The committee asked Nielsen, Arbitron and stations for more continuous measurement. Nothing much happened. Buyers should not repeat the mistake of asking someone else to solve their problem. They have the knowledge and the numbers to do it themselves.

Mr. Ephron is a partner in Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, New York.

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