It’s that time of year again.
Turn on primetime network TV, if you dare.
Gorge on the Hottest Guest Stars, the Wildest Plot Twists, the Most Terrifying Cliffhangers, the 3-hour Movie Events, and the Exclusive Blockbuster Specials!!
Ever wonder why the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Oscars, to name just three, all show up within a few weeks of each other?
February Sweeps, that’s why. Didn’t you see the promo(s)?
Networks pour a ton of money into these periods traditionally designated for audience measurement (February, May, July, November). They do everything they can think of to goose the ratings: banishing repeats, loading their schedules with stunt programming, and mangling their established shows with hyped-up scripts that emphasize, well, weirdness. Like Fonzie “jumping the shark” on Happy Days (in case you wondered where that phrase came from).
As you can see from the above promo clip, Sweeps mania goes back many years. The A.C. Nielsen company created the concept in 1954, when ratings were determined by metering devices attached to a handful of TV sets, and 2 million diaries mailed to viewers. Nielsen would begin on the East Coast, then “sweep” West across the country, gathering data as they went.
These days, with ever-more sophisticated moment-by-moment audience tracking technology available, many TV executives find the whole idea of Sweeps pretty ridiculous. In fact, when so-called People Meters came along about a decade ago, we did see a bit of a drop in Sweeps-style excesses.
But traditions die hard. Worse, they spread. Watched your local news lately?
If they’re not scaring you (Nannies With Criminal Records!) they’re titillating you (Sexting! Is Your Child Safe?) or taking you Behind The Scenes at The Big Bang Theory.
If all else fails, there’s always bribery:
By the way, the announcers who do those local Sweeps promos aren’t local at all. They’re a select group of hired guns who make big money voicing those uber-dramatic spots for hundreds of TV stations.
Oh, and that uber-dramatic background music? It’s for sale:
Look, I’m old school. It’s one thing for networks to go nuts with entertainment programming during Sweeps. It’s actually fun to watch.
But news was supposed to be different, remember? It was one of the things TV stations agreed to provide to the community, in exchange for making a fortune with the public’s airwaves.
I understand that news can no longer be a “loss leader” and must earn its keep. And I know personally how difficult it is to get viewers’ attention and hold it.
But we’ve now raised and trained several generations of producers and EPs who put ratings above informing the public.
Something’s wrong when news execs come in to work in the morning, and the first document they pick up isn’t a newspaper, or an AP wire story, but the Overnights. How’d we do? What was our share? Did we win?
Something’s wrong when a newscast during Sweeps is so jammed with “Special Reports,” actual news is shoved into a tiny space and important stories are dropped.
As a veteran of many newsrooms and about 120 (yikes!) Sweeps periods, I’ve seen some weird stuff. Like a special report called, “Is God Punishing Us?”
It was intriguing. It won an Emmy. But was it news?
I’m also as guilty as anyone else. I did a 2-part report on Star Trek, and a 3-parter on rude New Yorkers (Stop the presses!)
So entrenched is the ratings-or-bust mentality, news directors have been known to stretch a normally 35-minute newscast to a full hour in order to “take it out of the book.” This was done on nights when we knew the competition had superior programming and we couldn’t beat them. The rules say an hour newscast is not measured against other stations’ 35-minute shows. Those were the nights we writers had to work twice as hard… so it wouldn’t count.
One newsroom I worked in was so Sweeps-centric you almost never saw the regular anchor team unless it was Sweeps, when no vacations were permitted. The rest of the time, it seemed someone was always away. They’d roll the open and I’m thinking…. “NOW…. Carol Martin! (nope, she’s off today...) Brian Williams! (uh-uh, he’s filling in on the 6) and Dr. Frank Field!” (yeah… it’s Mr. G, isn’t it?) and so on.
To be fair, I’ve also seen plenty of strong investigative journalism cranked out during Sweeps, everything from groundbreaking coverage of the early AIDS epidemic to exposing rampant corruption at City Hall and much more. It’s truly wonderful when news operations dig in and tell important stories. I would just hope we can get to a point where it happens all the time, and Sweeps go the way of the Edsel.
After all, we’re in a new era. No single month should be a Sweeps month. And every month should be a Sweeps month.