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Broom propped against brick wall: Sweeps Week

Why Sweeps Week Might Soon Be Swept Away

May 2nd, 2018   ||    by Susan Kuchinskas

Sweeps Week is a throwback to the paper-and-pencil era, when television was just beginning to reach critical mass. In the early 1950s, A.C. Nielsen Company had only one way of measuring audiences: by asking people individually. The paper diaries it sent to a representative sample of people across the country were revolutionary at the time.

Nielsen couldn’t expect people to keep diaries faithfully year-round, so it sent them out quarterly, each round covering a period of four weeks. These four-week periods were then used to set ad rates for local advertising. Smart TV stations quickly figured out that they could game the system by loading their hottest programming into these periods. Thus was born the Sweeps, often known as Sweeps Week, even though it’s really a four-week period.

Diaries in the Digital Era

Today, brands are spending more on targeted and programmatic advertising that lets them go beyond demographics and age to reach people with clear interests and purchase intent.

Programmatic buying platforms are making the diary-based measurement method irrelevant: Programmatic buying lets advertisers reach the right audience using first- and third-party data instead of a snapshot of a show’s audience during an arbitrary point in time. At the same time, TV stations can better monetize their inventory and shift their focus to building audiences year-round.

There are some local station groups still taking advantage of Sweeps Week, however, as evidenced by the way the Buffalo News covered the February Sweeps. HealthNewsReview reported on sensationalized stories about medical breakthroughs broadcast on Twin Cities stations. (In fact, the news media may be doing its part to prop up this aging institution with its coverage.)

Patrick Paolini, VP-GM of Fox’s WTTG-WDCA Washington, argued in TVNewsCheck that forward-looking stations know they have to deliver to viewers 24/7/365—and that providing value to viewers is the best way to maintain ratings and ad rates. He pointed out that modern stations have access to a wide variety of research and analytics tools to get immediate feedback on how programming performs.

This focus on a few weeks out of the year is no good for local stations, either. Paul Greeley of TVNewsCheck says that while stations may produce solid local news coverage year-round, they too often resort to special programming designed to capture attention during Sweeps. These are often “the most trivial, sensationalistic, shallow, salacious, sexy, scary news reports,” undermining the credibility of the news room, Greeley says.

Poised for Change?

Nielsen itself is aware of the need to evolve; it’s embraced social media measurement and increased the use of its Portable People Meter, which provides more granular viewing data. Brian Fuhrer, senior vice president of product leadership for Nielsen, said the data provider is working on more initiatives to include out-of-home and over-the-top viewing in its data, according to the Los Angeles Times.

So is this a chicken-and-egg thing? Advertisers are pushing Nielsen for an alternative that would make Sweeps Week less relevant. Nielsen says it’s ready to work with advertisers. And local stations could benefit from more accurate measurement throughout the year—without having to scramble for Sweeps Week.

And yet, according to Slate, the twin canards of demographic ratings and seasonal programming remain entrenched throughout every part of the TV marketplace. So this spring—once again—TV viewers should be prepared for shocking exposés and heart-tugging specials, courtesy of their local stations…and Sweeps Week.

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