What are Sweeps Months?
During four months of the year - November, February, May, and July - television broadcast networks set the rates they charge advertisers. They base their prices on their performances in the Nielsen ratings for these months. As a result, the networks load their heaviest hitters, their biggest potential ratings blockbusters, into these months.
What are the Nielsen Ratings?
They are an audience measurement system that takes a representative sampling of how many people are watching what shows. During Non-Sweeps periods, 50,000 families are selected to be "Nielsen families" and are given set-top measuring boxes that record what they watch.
But once Sweeps comes along, the number of Nielsen households balloons to 1 million, with the additional household logging their TV-watching habits via Nielsen diaries. Nielsen families are given a one-time payment of U.S.$50 to participate.
Do local stations have Sweeps Months?
Yes. A good indicator of a Sweeps Month might be when you start seeing promos for the local news that scream, "Tonight, the first in a five series report, 'The Killer Lurking In Your Homes.'"
How about cable networks?
While cable viewership is measured, "They just don't have the reach of the broadcast network," says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. "To go head to head with them during the sweeps months for them doesn't pay." John Leonard, of CBS News Sunday Morning, The Nation, and New York magazine, says the strategy for cable networks is more "narrowcasting" than broadcasting. "What makes sense for cable is to find out what its audience wants, then program on that basis."
Why not base ad rates on ratings for the whole year?
TV programming changes from month to month, Leonard notes, with shows added and dropped all the time. Thus, a year's sampling would not represent reality. Of course, the way Sweeps Months are programmed with specials and blockbusters, neither do they.
Any end to this system in sight?
"It only becomes a dinosaur if the advertising agencies decide not to play the game," says Leonard. Adds Roush, "I don't see it going away any time soon. I'm already hearing about what's coming ahead in May sweeps."