Now the American Association of Advertising Agencies says the sweeps system is simply not fixable. It wants a new, more accurate (and more expensive) system of year-round audience measurements. And the Four A's is right. It's far better to stop paying for phantom viewers, to stop skewing program schedules at the expense of regular series and to give viewers a chance to see top-quality attractions throughout the year.
What the reformers have going for them is that some TV executives may finally see the tangled web the sweeps ratings hype has created. Recall the predicament CBS found itself in last spring. It loudly denounced rival stations in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis for using watch-and-win sweepstakes to hype local news viewership at the expense of CBS stations in those markets-only to learn the CBS station in Miami employed the same stunt against its competitors.
And the number of stations using the watch-and-win gambit has soared to 250 in this year's May sweeps from 150 in the February sweeps, Nielsen Media Research estimates.
So long as agencies keep buying "by-the-numbers," even if the numbers are suspect, few TV stations will feel compelled to change the sweeps game. While J. Walter Thompson USA declared this year it would not buy from stations whose ratings were flagged by Nielsen for hyping, few others have taken such a public stand.
If Four A's is serious, its members will need to be tough-and equally willing to talk frankly about how the reforms are to be paid for.
President Clinton had better hurry up with building that bridge to the 21st century because advertisers are going to cross it a year early.
As calendar purists are quick to point out, the 21st century begins in the year 2001. The year 2000 is just the 100th year of the 20th century. But there is marketing magic in that round number and no forward-looking marketer worth his or
her salt is going to miss out on that four-digit change in the planet's odometer.
As our "Countdown" Special Report this week reports, New York even has a Millennium (and let's get that spelling straight right now-two Ls, two Ns) Committee to draw national attention to its traditional New Year's Eve celebration on Dec. 31, 1999. The city is looking for sponsors to tie in. Air France is offering Concorde flights to four different time zones on that special night, and is also looking for sponsor partnership.
Some predict marketers will plan a year long promotion, starting with 2000 and ending with our official move into the new century.
For companies with long histories, retrospectives on the 20th century are sure bets. Surviving two world wars, a cold war and numerous smaller skirmishes is in itself something to boast about. Technology companies will more likely look ahead, predicting what the 21st century will bring.
We advise them not to be too fanciful; many predicted that by the end of this century we would be driving on computer-operated highways or commuting by helicopters, living in domed cities and populating the moon and other planets. Instead we're still dealing with gridlock on the FDR Drive, Michigan Avenue, the Santa Monica Freeway and in Washington's political arena.
Let's hope the president makes that bridge extra wide.