Why TV Sweeps Needs to Die

Ratings Periods Mean Less Each Time -- and Hurt Broadcast More

By Published on .

Brad Adgate
Brad Adgate
This year's November sweeps have come and gone with little more than a murmur. Who won the sweeps? Who cares?

For decades the sweeps were one of the most important events for the broadcast networks, whose local affiliates used ratings from sweeps periods to set ad rates. More recently they became a spectator sport too, as viewers and TV industry observers watched specifically to see which network's sweeps stunts would generate the biggest buzz.

But last month the biggest talk about TV centered on Conan O' Brien's new show, Keith Olbermann's temporary suspension and the debut of Sarah Palin's series. It was all about cable.

At the broadcast networks the only real noteworthy event during the November sweeps was the alleged voting "controversy" on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." Otherwise the networks aired their usual sweeps programming, new episodes sprinkled with a few specials, to little industry notice.

What happened to sweeps?

Oprah Winfrey, moving to cable.
Oprah Winfrey, moving to cable. Credit: Wenn
Broadcast is still bigger, but cable is climbing
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 back.

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 Turner Broadcasting.

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."

Year-round ratings
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 showing reruns.

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 work.

Brad Adgate is senior VP-research for Horizon Media.
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