CLOSE THE BOOK ON SWEEPS: CURRENT SYSTEM LETS TV NETS, LOCAL STATIONS DISTORT THE PROCESS

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The television rating sweep periods are an anachronism that must die!

It is time the TV networks realize that perpetuating the ratings sweep periods is killing them as an effective advertising medium.

The sweeps were once an economically sound way to produce a picture in time of how TV audiences were reacting to broadcasters' programs. Now they are nothing more than a picture of a point in time that only exists during the four weeks when the sweeps measurement is taken.

Now they are publicly acknowledged in the media to be nothing more than a way for local stations to try to set ad prices, effective for months after the sweeps, based on programming schedules not representative of anything but the month in which those programs actually ran.

OPRAH AND STEPHEN KING

Last November, the networks ran in prime time an "Oprah Winfrey Presents" special featuring Sidney Poitier, a made-for-TV movie on The Temptations, the first showings of the theatrical movies "Jurassic Park" and "Twister" and Christopher Reeve's updated version of the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Rear Window."

February's sweeps were no less spectacular: Stephen King's first original work for TV ("Storm of the Century"); part two of Tom Clancy's miniseries "NetForce"; the 4-hour miniseries "The '60s"; theatricals ("Eraser," "A Very Brady Sequel," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Waiting to Exhale"); special award shows ("Soap Opera Digest," "The Miss USA Pageant," the "Grammys"); and the Super Bowl of "20/20" shows, Barbara Walters' Monica Lewinsky interview. Typical programming? I should say not.

What effect do these shows have on those that follow them? Are local news program ratings during the sweeps periods indicative of what can be expected the other 36 weeks of the year, when they aren't preceded by highly visible specials?

Do the networks get all they hope to get from these high-octane programs when they air them against each other? Does it make sense to buy "Jurassic Park," for a reported $80 million license fee, and have it compete against other high-interest programming?

SPREADING IT AROUND

Wouldn't it be better for the networks to spread their best product throughout the year? Wouldn't there be larger audiences for more weeks if they weren't constrained to run their most important programs during only 16 weeks? Isn't it in advertisers' long-term interest to have the over-the-air networks be a viable way to reach mass audiences?

Do away with the sweeps and we do away with the charade that what you see in local ratings books is what you get. Do away with the sweeps and breathe life back into the mass medium of over-the-air TV networks.

It's also time to do away with the deceitful promotions that are run by many (not all) local stations just during sweeps periods in an attempt to distort what appears in the local ratings books.

A Houston station conducted a watch-and-win contest during the November sweeps. It offered $2,000 each day to viewers in each of its 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts. The same contest was run during the 28 days of the May 1998 sweeps. Overnight ratings confirm these cash giveaways clearly distort the ratings in the market. The station's numbers spike when the contest is run and then drop back to pre-contest levels when the cash giveaway stops.

ONLY A SCAM

Astute media buyers will see the scam for what it is. Those who don't just get screwed. We should not allow stations to deliberately misrepresent themselves and benefit from it.

Some stations also engage in activities that, at the very least, inadvertently distort the ratings books. A West Palm Beach, Fla., station, for example, aired a commercial message last November in which a voice-over announcer intoned, "Remember. You are watching News [station's channel position and call letters]." The announcement aired over video footage that showed a pen and paper with the handwritten notation "News [station's channel position and call letters]."

Was it an "accident" that the video was in the form of a Nielsen diary? Or was it a deliberate attempt to show those people in the market who were part of the Nielsen diary panel how to fill-out the diary -- complete with the "answers"?

LITTLE REACTION FROM NIELSEN

When Nielsen learned what happened, it did what it normally does in these situations: almost nothing! It flagged the infraction on the cover of the ratings book and listed it inside the report along with three "watch and win" contests -- two run by syndicators and one by a major TV network (the networks aren't above doing these kinds of things as well).

If media buyers were even aware of this problem (many have access to the ratings information on their computers only and never see the Nielsen book), perhaps adjustments were made to those programs and station ratings that inadvertently or deliberately dis- torted the ratings book. My guess is the stations simply got away with the deception!

Stations are counting on the fact that many buys are re-rated off of the sweep books and that the station will get credit for ratings during non-sweep periods that it didn't actually achieve.

UNETHICAL PRACTICES

At the very least, these practices are unethical. The stations' performance looks better than they are in fact; the buyer's re-ratings look better than they are. But the advertiser, who is expecting a certain level of communication in the market, is getting less than it believes it is receiving. Two out of three is a great average in baseball. It's a poor average in this "game" when it's the advertiser that is the loser. It pays the bill.

It is time all media buyers (not just the astute ones) take note of what is happening and penalize those stations that attempt to take advantage of the terrible local market rating system we are currently working with.

The scheduling of the networks' best programs and local station promotions just during ratings sweep periods must end.

Mr. Banks is New York-based exec VP-executive media director, North America, Saatchi & Saatchi, and head of the American Association of Advertising Agencies'

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