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American Journalism Review
The End of Sweeps?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   April/May 2004

The End of Sweeps?   

“People meters” will give stations detailed demographic information about their audiences every day.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter ( is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

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.

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