Local TV sweeps are the few months of the year in TV land when broadcast segments kick into high gear with investigative pieces and consumer segments that are intensely promoted and aggressively marketed by local television outlets. And sweeps start in February.
So what’s the fuss? We asked an industry insider and former news director with 23 years of experience in the Indianapolis market to share his take on sweeps.
Kevin Finch knows more about local sweeps, and the stories that were generated during those competitive months, than most. He held key positions at three of the four Indy TV stations, including news director at two of those four organizations.
We tracked Finch down at his new position as an assistant professor where he is shaping the next generation of broadcasters in the department of journalism and mass communications at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
Q: What are sweeps?
A: They’re a traditional method of measuring TV audience. Nielsen, the practical monopoly in TV ratings, collects information on the demographics of a few hundred homes throughout the country where a family’s television viewing habits are recorded for research purposes. The industry dubbed Nielsen families then help determine how many 18-49 year-old women are watching “Ellen” at 3 p.m. on WTHR, for instance, or how many 25-54 year-old men are watching WXIN’s morning newscast vs. morning news on WISH, WRTV and WTHR. In smaller markets, such as Terre Haute, Ind., or even mid-size cities like Grand Rapids, Mich., Nielsen families fill out a diary of what they’ve watched. So those four-week sweeps periods are the only times when TV stations and their advertisers can get a precise read on who is watching what and when. That information helps TV stations set the rates charged for advertising. As a larger market, Indianapolis has set-top boxes that provide overnight ratings 365 days a year but it uses sweeps to augment the viewer data it gets from overnights.
Q: Why do local TV stations pump up the “investigative” reports during sweeps?
A: There are three answers to that. First, it’s economics. Syndication companies (those that distribute Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight and other programs) provide co-op advertising money to the stations that carry their programs. By agreement, the TV stations promote that syndicated program during sweeps with billboards, radio and cable TV time and they also promote appointment viewing of their latest special report. Appointment viewing means watching a TV program in real time as it airs live. Second, until Nielsen does away with sweeps, every television station still wants to win or at least grow audience from one sweeps period (or the “book” as insiders call it) to the next. Third, viewers say they like investigative journalism.
Q: What are the seasons or months for sweeps and why & how did they get established?
A: February, May, July and November are the main sweeps months throughout the country. Larger markets – including Indianapolis – also have an October sweeps period. Each sweeps period is 28 days long. The general objective is to get a representation of viewing behavior in all four seasons. May is the most important book of all. TV account executives sell advertising time on data from May ratings right through the fall. May is when networks have cliff-hangers or series finales and local stations continue to roll out reports they’ve been working on for months.
Q: As a former news director, what did you like least about sweeps? Same on what you liked most (if at all).
A: Winning. That’s what I liked the most. When you can trot out a promo that says, “We’re Number One, morning, noon and night,” that’s something the whole station can celebrate. Of course, losing a book or trending downward in audience is what I liked the least. Seriously, the best thing about sweeps is that it is an excuse to do good, long-form journalism (as opposed to the stories you shoot, report and edit on the same day). The worst: It creates a resource battle inside a newsroom and can lead to morale problems between those who get to work on a long-form piece and those picking up the slack covering the daily grind.
Q: Should people and companies who get called for stories during sweeps be on red alert – worrying that the worst type of story is going to be generated?
A: No. The bulk of a TV newsroom’s activities are still focused on day-to-day coverage. Also, good newsrooms work on sweeps pieces weeks or even months in advance. So the time you get a phone call won’t necessarily coincide with sweeps. And let’s not be so pessimistic. You could get a call just to get basic information or even to ask your CEO to serve as an expert on best practices—maybe in contrast to another company or organization that is, in fact, under investigation.
Q: What’s your best advice for a company that gets called by a reporter during sweeps?
A: First, and I’m not trying to be a sarcastic here, answer the phone. Do you want a story to drag on for several minutes, with crying victims and accusations and experts only to get to the end of the piece and hear, “not available for comment” or “did not return our repeated calls?” Reporters know that you may not have the answer at your fingertips so they’ll understand if you ask for a half-hour or some agreed upon time to get them some answers. Second, again, your organization may not be the target of an investigation. You could be the expert they’re seeking or simply someone who knows how things are supposed to work.
Q: And if you were in charge to make a grand scale change to sweeps, what would you do?
A: Ah yes. I’d love to see sweeps go away. Some of the best investigative work in Indianapolis aired in between sweeps periods because it simply couldn’t wait, including WRTV’s reports on a breakdown in security at the governor’s residence or WTHR’s stories almost 20 years ago about the then-speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives on a taxpayer-paid trip, skipping a legislative conference to have fun in New Orleans. On the other hand, WISH’s continuing series about problems at the BMV years ago was in sweeps and it was strong, award-winning stuff. Stories should come out of the oven when they’re done. They shouldn’t sit under a promotional heat lamp until the next sweeps. But sweeps are so ingrained in the entire system – advertising, promotion, syndication, networks, and news – that I don’t see it going away any time soon. (Full disclosure: I was in the loop for two of those stories described above but they were someone else’s good work, not mine.)
Q: Now that you’re teaching future journalists, what advice do you give them about sweeps and navigating those waters?
A: Sweeps can be a blessing, especially to a young journalist. It may be the first time you’ve been given more than a day to work on a story. A sweeps piece can be your opportunity to shine. But please remember this: It is just as important to do good work on a daily basis, even if there’s no promotional oomph behind it.