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Television's local "sweeps" ratings periods are one of the great shell games of the media business, one where the suckers -- in this case, the advertisers -- know they're being suckered but can't figure out a way not to play. The latest proposal to change this, from CBS, is weak and has some obvious flaws. But agencies should give it support; any step forward, we submit, is better than none.

Essentially, CBS proposes a "checkerboard" strategy that extends the usual month long sweeps period into two months. To keep the audience measurement costs the same (cost is always the Achilles' heel in plans to fix the sweeps problem), Nielsen Media Research would only do local diary measurements every other week of that two-month ratings period.

Under the current system, local TV stations spike news ratings for four straight weeks by airing sensational reports and outrageous specials. On occasion they add contests, lotteries and other gimmicks. Networks skew their entire season strategy around the key sweeps periods of February, May and November. The artificially high sweeps viewership levels are then used to set local ad prices for the rest of the year -- making advertisers pay extra for sweeps viewers who melt away when the reruns return.

CBS' checkerboard plan is based on the simple theory that stations will have a harder time maintaining the specials and stunting for two months instead of one. It's mild, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

A better solution is year-round local ratings. So far, however, no one wants to pay for them. More realistically, ad buyers, TV executives and the research companies involved should seriously consider ponying up money for diary measurements every week of the two-month sweeps, thus truly extending each sweeps periods.

Even if no one thinks the long-term savings to advertisers are worth extra financing, than at the least the American Association of Advertising Agencies should embrace the improvement CBS offers -- and tell Nielsen it's time for the stations to play some serious checkers.

Anti-ad excess

Three u.s. senators propose -- seriously -- that the U.S. government direct $750 million a year toward anti-tobacco advertising. It's a gratifying vote of confidence in the power of advertising by Sens. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), Bob Graham (D., Fla.) and John Chafee (R., R.I.). It's also overkill and ad industry leaders should say so.

How big is big? A $750 million anti-tobacco campaign exceeds what the entire U.S. government spent on advertising in 1996, which Advertising Age put at $670 million. It's more than Coca-Cola Co. is estimated to have spent in the U.S. for all its brands ($612 million) in 1996! Moreover, the government will bid against every other advertiser to teens for the choicest ad availabilities, practically assuring higher costs for every one.

Advocates will cite Federal Trade Commission data that show the tobacco industry spent $5 billion in 1996 on all forms of advertising and promotion, including samples and free merchandise. But tobacco companies were supporting multiple brands; anti-tobacco ads have a less complicated message to get across.

Thinking big is attractive; thinking smart is important. Great ads can help discourage some teens from taking up smoking, but other forms of education -- and quit-smoking programs -- are just as important. Testing and research can tell what ad messages, at what media weights, work best. Big dollars alone, however, don't guarantee big results.

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