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What are TV Sweeps?

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

By Maia Brusseau

In the television world, today is the first day of May sweeps. Yes, we know it’s still April, but the May ratings measurement period, aka sweeps, officially kicks off today. What the heck are “sweeps,” anyway?

I haven’t worked in a television station for six years, but when someone mentions the months of February, May, July and November I experience a brief moment of PTSD. I can remember pleading with friends and family not to schedule weddings, reunions, or anything else important, because you wouldn’t dare ask for vacation during those months. Why? Those four random months were when television ratings were determined. Way back when, Nielsen had diaries in homes where people actually wrote down what they were watching and when. A problematic way to determine TV viewing, since it’s human nature to say you watched PBS documentaries all day versus soap operas. Those months were filled with stress, long hours, heavy workloads, even more deadlines than usual and the never ending pressure to WIN.

It was common to see ridiculously sensationalized stories and promos (think: This [insert random thing] is in your home and it could kill you!). Stunts that ranged from watch-and-win contests to airing the one story you promoted all day, maybe even for several days, at 11:16pm, so you could keep the audience watching as long as possible were also common. I literally wrote lines like “don’t go to bed yet…” so people would stay up and keep watching the news - facepalm. So, are sweeps still a thing? That is a great question! If you ask someone working at a local TV station, they’ll tell you that sweeps is every day. And, they’re right. Nielsen is still around, along with other measurement services like Comscore, but they’ve evolved from those questionable diaries to “proprietary electronic measuring devices and software” to determine TV viewership. The biggest change is that television stations and networks get daily performance data. Those devices and software measure viewership all the time, not just during those four months. You’re probably wondering “if there is data available all the time, why would TV stations still participate in sweeps?” The answer is simple. Money. Television networks and syndicators offer advertising money to local stations. The stations pay for half of the advertising and the network or syndicator pays for the other half. Typically, this co-op money is tied to specific dates or time frames that fall within (you guessed it) traditional sweeps periods. In order to take advantage of the extra dollars available to help raise awareness about their newscasts and TV stations, they have to play by the network or syndicator’s rules. So, in months like May or November, you’re more likely to see your local CBS affiliate, for example, advertising NCIS: Hawaii and their 11pm news through outside media like billboards, cable, radio, or OTT (our favorite here at Left Hand Agency!). That means most stations still experience an uptick in workload, restrictions on vacations, and a little extra added pressure during those months, with the exception of July, since viewership plummets when it gets warm outside. While we understand the importance of using those co-op dollars, we would like sweeps to be nothing more than a piece of TV history, so stations can build awareness and grow their audiences with outside media support year-round. Hopefully someday soon, we will get there! Until then, reach out if you want to chat about all things about sweeps, ratings or media buying!

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