Are Sweeps Months Worth the Fuss?

Six weddings and a farewell or two. That's how the year's biggest month of TV programming is shaping up. Not a week will go by without an hour-long special here, or an "I do" there.

But beneath the "Seinfeld" send-off and sitcom nuptials, a storm is brewing over the usefulness of sweeps months like May, when advertising rates for local markets are set and networks pull out all the stops to win viewers for affiliates.

National and local broadcasters have been more vocal in recent years about getting rid of sweeps - and the measurement and programming problems that go with it.

"Does it serve the consumer to have three or four programs they really want to see occur on the same night at the same time?" asks Liz Cheng, program director at ABC affiliate WCVB in Boston.

Spreading their best programs out over a longer period would not only give a more accurate picture of viewership and better return on investment, broadcasters argue, but it would also decrease the frustration audiences have with having to wait for original shows in February, May, November, and to a lesser extent July.

The alternatives being proposed are as numerous as mysterious men on "The X-Files." More common options include extending the local ratings period (when Nielsen families fill in diaries) from 16 to 32 or 48 weeks, measuring every two weeks, or continuous local measurement, which is the most costly and would mean putting more technology in homes. It's the choice many in the business find attractive.

"The goal should be to not just change the game. The goal should be to eliminate the game," argues Nicholas Schiavone, senior vice president of research at NBC. "There is only one solution to this, and it's continuous metered measurement 52 weeks a year."

Though ad agencies support a change in sweeps, they point out it won't be cheap. "Continuous measurement is only going to work if people want to pay for it," says Karen Agresti, a senior vice president responsible for television buying at Boston-based Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos. Local stations, and to some degree advertisers, would be footing most of the bill.

Year-round ratings would probably mean a better mix of reruns and first-run shows throughout the year. It could also mean a change in the way stories are told. The necessity of stunt-plotting (like marriages) during sweeps months has forced writers into a rhythm when planning story lines, says Tom Bierbaum, who covers TV for the trade paper Variety. "That's been a big impact [of sweeps] on the face of prime time."

At the local level, promotional contests and sensational news stories during sweeps are what concern Roger Ogden, president and general manager of KUSA, an NBC affiliate in Denver. He would rather have year-long ratings and get rid of the antics and hype that jade audiences, he says.

But despite the complaints, it will likely be some time before quarterly visits from asteroids and "Cheers" cast members disappear. Advertisers, national and local broadcasters, and Nielsen Media Research have yet to find a solution they all agree on.

That doesn't trouble Robert Thompson too much. The director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University says he likes sweeps.

"It's a time to be interested in TV," he says. The high level of competition during sweeps prompts extremes in programming - so along with the "shockumentaries," viewers get innovative fare like "Merlin." Several times a year the networks get to experiment, he says, and "we get some really exciting programs."

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