TV Would Be Better Off Without ‘Sweeps’

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Last week, in my wrap of February sweeps and the several big surprises that occurred, one of my newer readers, Kenna, asked my opinion of sweeps in general.

I hope you’re sitting down.

Here’s a basic fact of life in television: ratings determine what stays on the air. To that end, as I’ve said before, television is truly one of the most democratic systems we have: the shows that have viewership, (or in some cases are most believed to have the potential to gain viewership quickly) will stay on the air. Those that do not disappear.

In the “old” days, shows were given time to find an audience if the audience didn’t immediately find them. All in the Family wasn’t a ratings success from the start. Neither was M*A*S*H. In both cases, these shows found an audience during summer rerun season because viewers who’d already seen what the other networks had offered earlier in the season decided they’d see what some of these other shows were about. That’s when they began their ascent in the ratings.

Today, there are more than four channels. There isn’t even consistency among all of the channels that do exist as to when reruns should happen: some channels have wisely decided to premiere their big shows when they know everyone else traditionally is in reruns.

But because, along with the extra competition, everything costs so much more to produce and license, there’s less time to spend waiting around for a show to find that audience.

Sweeps are an additional wrinkle in the mix.

There are four sweeps months: February, May, July and November. What’s different about sweeps months is that Nielsen, the company best known for measuring ratings, sends diaries out to viewers across the country. The viewer is asked to identify himself (or herself) by gender and age and then list what he or she watched for a week. There are four weeks in every sweeps, and that means four sets of families participate each week. In larger markets, set-top boxes ask volunteers to provide their demographics and then measure who’s watching what.

Granted, this is a simplified explanation of how it works, but it’s how networks determine, for example, which shows are #1 among Adults 18-49 versus simply which shows are number one in households. Ratings determine what networks and stations can charge advertisers to run commercials during those specific programs. Therefore, ratings aren’t a game: they’re a critical financial tool.

May Sweeps is the most important because the ratings measured that month determines how much advertisers pay during the holidays at the end of the year. This, it shouldn’t surprise you to know, is why most of the biggest shows have their “cliffhangers” in May. Likewise, it’s why you can’t watch all of your favorite shows that month without seeing someone get shot, killed or blown up.

And therein lies the problem: when you force full viewership measurements into four months out of the year — and for what it’s worth, July is the least important of them — the natural plan would be to put your “best stuff” in those months, hoping to attract the most viewers to the time when the most detailed and useful measurement is happening.

Univision, the Spanish-language network that managed to pull off the ultimate coup of beating one of the big four networks in Adults 18-49 in February, programs mostly new episodes of its limited-run prime time soaps. Because there are fewer reruns, viewers have new content all year long. They’ve managed to build a growing audience because of this.

Unfortunately, that’s the rarity these days.

Imagine how much better things might be if you, the viewer, knew that your favorite show would have a new episode each week! Even if “summer reruns” were restricted to 13 weeks of the summer months, and they only placed the “best” episodes in those weeks, that’d still leave 39 weeks for new programs. Talk about appointment television!

Short of that, there is still one option better than sweeps months: continual audience measurement all year round, thus eliminating the networks’ desire to “cram” the best into sweeps. It would raise the bar for programming all year round, and show producers and stars would want more money. But on the flip side, because the ratings delivered would more accurately reflect viewing habits all year long, networks would be in a better position to negotiate more reasonable rates for shows that don’t do as well all year long.

The other thing that would have to change is that those little diaries would have to go away. They’ve always been problematic because a shocking number of people don’t care enough to either fill them out at all or fill them out correctly. I’m always amazed by how many people have no idea what the call letters of their local stations are; some of them don’t even know that channel I work for when I tell them the channel number. Others know the channel number but have no idea which network that channel represents. For me, someone who has always been a big-time TV viewer, that’s just unimaginable.

Still, when we’re talking about an audience filling out a diary, that’s a major problem: entering the wrong information can result in the wrong show getting credit for your viewership, and that can get your show canceled.

If I were king of the world, there’d be no sweeps months. Ratings would be accurately measured all year long because those little set-top boxes would always know who’s watching what channel 24/7.  Since I’m not king of the world, the best we can hope for is that latter part: that the diaries eventually all get replaced with a more accurate measurement system.

Of course, my lack of a crown isn’t the only thing keeping us from more accurate ratings measurements. Most people in television will tell you that the ratings system is far from perfect, but we have to live with it until we can manage to pull off something better. The cost of the technology is a big part of it. However, even if every broadcaster could afford to pay for that level of accuracy, where the possibility of wrong diaries couldn’t contaminate ratings, there’s still a major stumbling block.

I’ll explain that in next Thursday’s TV post.

Your Turn:
Do you prefer traditional TV seasons where there’s a cliffhanger every spring and a season premiere that picks up where the cliffhanger left off every fall, or would you prefer to see new episodes all year round? Do you feel you’d be more or less likely to watch a show if there were new episodes more often, or do you think you might get tired of shows faster that way?

3 comments
Luigitoo
Luigitoo

There are a couple of additional flaws..... We are no longer loyal to one network, I regularly record across all of them.  I also will watch two programs in the same time slot by recording.  Recording also allows me to skip ads.  Therefore taking my viewing figures would show the popularity of my favourite shows, but make the advertising spend redundant.

The second point is that with so many starts and stops in the season to allow for hiatus, holidays, elections etc, there is no smooth flow of episodes.  While I will wait a couple of weeks for my favourite shows, if I didn't have a system (being a fanatic!) I may skip episodes.  Weaker shows with no flow will lose me.  If I was not that interested in them, a break of 2 weeks is enough to pull me away.  There are so many new shows these days as a lot are only running 10 or 15 episodes in a season so I am not short of things to watch.  It is irritating that my favourites come in fits and starts and usually now with only 18 - 20 episodes sigh.......

Cathryn (aka Strange)
Cathryn (aka Strange) like.author.displayName 1 Like

I would love it if there were more new episodes of the programs I enjoy the most and I'd like it if they would run them all at once! The old-fashioned way of showing new shows in the fall with a cliffhanger in the spring is fine with me!

What I see happening now for one of the shows I watch is that they will show some new episodes in the fall, then show a completely different show during that day and time until spring.  Then they will show more new episodes.  This creates 2 cliffhanger possibilities, I suppose, but it also drives me nuts!  I feel like there are less new episodes each year while I imagine there are the same amount but they are just spread out.  Worse, if I miss an episode and forget to tape it, I'll have to go online to watch it as they aren't going to show it anytime soon.

I would like if they would do a year-round rating system but I guess that wouldn't be feasible right now.