Broadcast is still bigger, but cable is
In today's multichannel, multiscreen environment, what had once
been a greatly anticipated quarterly event has become, well,
somewhat unimportant. One problem has been a broadcast season
devoid of new breakout hits and marked by ratings erosion at
several long-running shows, while cable continues to attract more
viewers. ESPN's "Monday Night Football" was the season's
second-highest rated show among adults from 18 to 49, an
accomplishment that would have been inconceivable just a few years
In January, meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey is poised to introduce her
own cable network -- in what promises to be the most publicized
startup the cable business has seen. The college football
championship game will move from broadcast to ESPN early next year.
Portions of the NCAA basketball tournament, which had aired
exclusively on CBS, will be seen on three cable networks owned by
And when the Emmys come around -- yes, still on broadcast --
viewers will again see a slew of nominations for cable fare from
"Mad Men" to "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
But there's another problem with sweeps: the weakness of its
methodology and the growing strength of year-round ratings .
Nielsen sends out hundreds of thousands of diaries every November,
February, May and July -- the four quarterly sweeps periods -- to
measure shows' ratings in local households.
This season Nielsen will mail out TV diaries to 185 of the
country's smaller TV markets. But diaries depend too much on
viewers' participation; have poor response rates, particularly with
young demographics and ethnic groups; and suffer from the
proliferation of TV sets in every household, which makes it harder
to track what everyone's watching. Last month the Media Ratings
Council, an industry watchdog, withdrew its accreditation for
Nielsen in "diary-only" TV markets, the first time since 1965 that
the council hasn't accredited the Nielsen TV diary.
At the same time, Nielsen People Meters are continually
measuring ratings in the 25 largest TV markets. No diaries, program
stunts or sweeps are needed in these markets, which account for 48%
of all TV homes and more than 50% of all local broadcast TV
revenue. In 2006 Nielsen actually announced plans to eliminate
paper diaries, but that hasn't happened yet.
Sweeps deplete broadcast ammo
Sweeps periods are also starting to hurt broadcast networks.
Because broadcasters load so much of their best programming -- new
episodes, specials, event TV -- into sweeps periods, they're left
with depleted resources to compete during the rest of the year.
Cable networks work on an entirely separate set of rules. Cable
doesn't need a rigid broadcast season that begins in late September
and concludes at the end of May sweeps, so it's no surprise that
several cable channels have begun to run some of their best
programming during the non-sweeps months when broadcasters are
It is time for Nielsen to play its part in eliminating diaries
-- and sweeps -- by continually measuring all local TV markets all
the time. This is what advertisers -- who advertise throughout the
year, after all -- have been asking for. Eliminating the sweeps
will give programmers at the broadcast networks some much needed
flexibility in scheduling.
The call to eliminate diaries is nothing new, but the lack of
interest in the latest sweeps is the latest evidence that their
time is done. Sweeps will only atrophy further going forward. When
Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding date was revealed to be
Friday, April 29, nobody seemed to care that it would land on the
second day of next May's sweeps period. The big question was how
many people would watch the ceremony on their computers at
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