The End of Sweeps?
“People meters” will give stations detailed demos
By Deborah Potter
For decades local television news has danced to the rhythm of sweeps,
hyping and stunting to win viewers in the four months of the year
that matter most to advertisers. Now, that rhythm is beginning to
change. Could it mean the end of sleazy sweeps tricks, or will stations
simply pander year-round?
The question arises thanks to new audience-measurement technology
that's rolling out in local markets this year. Nielsen Media Research
is replacing its old system of paper diaries with what it calls
"people meters" to collect demographic information about
local viewers every day of the year. Los Angeles is scheduled to
go online this spring, with New York, Chicago and San Francisco
to follow later in 2004, and the rest of the top 10 by 2006.
If you're thinking those cities already are metered markets, you're
right. But the meters now in use in more than 50 cities count only
the total number of homes watching news and other programs on each
station. These overnight ratings don't reveal what kinds of viewers
are watching, specifically by age and gender, which is what advertisers
really want to know. The new people meters do.
In Boston, where people meters have been in use since 2002, stations
can tell exactly what viewer groups are watching their newscasts
from one day to the next. "We get our report card every day,"
says Liz Cheng, vice president of programming for WCVB. The result,
she says, is a dramatic shift in the station's approach to news.
"We're not saving our best stories, our best reporters, for
[sweeps] a month away."
The change may be most noticeable in the promotions stations air
to entice viewers to watch during sweeps. Walt DeHaven, general
manager of CBS 4 in Denver, told TelevisionWeek that his station
already is doing things differently, even though people meters aren't
yet planned for his market. "You won't see anything on this
station in [sweeps] that says, 'Your house is going to kill you.
Stay tuned at 10.' "
But stations trying to get a jump on the new way of doing things
might want to heed the experience of WNBC in New York. In a Newsday
article, President and General Manager Frank Comerford blamed a
sudden ratings slump last November in part on "operational"
decisions. Translation: The station decided not to air sweeps stunts
and tune-in promotions because of the impending people-meter switch,
leaving the other stations in town more running room to snag viewers
the old-fashioned way.
Once people meters do take hold in a market, there's another potential
complication. Stations accustomed to seeing audience demographics
only in February, May, July and November will now see the precious
demos every morning. They might be tempted to try producing daily
news by the numbers, checking the overnights to see what kinds of
stories seem to draw the most prized viewers and adjusting their
nightly lineups accordingly.
WCVB's Cheng does not believe that's likely. For one thing, it's
difficult to say precisely what stories attracted viewers or caused
them to tune out because the demos are collected only every 15 minutes.
A minute-by-minute log is available. But, says Cheng, "That
is technology we do not want." Even without that level of detail,
the stations get so many demographic numbers every day "it
gets overwhelming to try to figure it out," she says. "The
sheer amount of information you get precludes making...judgments
day to day."
But the new technology won't change one critical fact about television
news. The name of the game remains the same: More viewers mean more
revenue. So what's to keep stations from airing exactly what they
do now to get people to tune in--fear-mongering consumer reports
and watch-to-win contests--and doing it daily instead of just four
months per year?
Nothing, perhaps, except basic economics. Many sweeps stunts may
be silly, but they're not cheap. It takes time and effort to compare
the wait time in supermarket checkout lanes, as one Dallas station
did in February, even if the resulting story wouldn't be classified
as solid journalism. If the Boston experience is any guide, stations
are more likely to invest their resources in covering daily local
news and promoting that coverage. "We think one of the best
things about people meters is that we are in the game 365 days a
year," says Cheng. "Our goal is to deliver a superior
newscast day in and day out."
Now that really is a revolutionary idea: stations actually trying
to produce better journalism year-round. How ironic that we might
have Nielsen to thank for helping to bring TV news back to its senses.
This article was originally published by
American Journalism Review, April/May 2004