There's a story in the TV business about the general manager of a station who didn't like the sweeps, didn't believe in their validity and decided to ignore them. "Programming as usual," he declared.
The result: His station finished dead last in the market and he was out the door pronto.
Stations simply can't afford to ignore the sweeps.
That's particularly true in Los Angeles, where four independent stations join network-affiliated stations in intensified combat to attract the most viewers.
On no front is the fight fiercer than in news, where the network-owned stations spend big money doing big projects that they hope will bring big ratings and big ad dollars.
But while all three find themselves playing the sweeps game, only KCBS-TV Channel 2 is willing to talk about it.
"Sure we have special reports--you can't survive without them--but we pick out topics that are newsworthy and take an in-depth look at them," says KCBS news director Erik Sorenson. "You won't see us doing 'Addicted to Sex' or 'Lesbian Nuns' or 'Confessions of a News Team.'
"Some people tune in to see those things and there's no question that the subject of sexual addiction is interesting to some people," he added, "but there are a number of other people who see it as pandering, something other than news."
That approach has not helped KCBS. Channel 2 newscasts finish third throughout the day.
In the most recent sweeps, last November, KABC-TV Channel 7 ruled the ratings roost with its 4, 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, while KNBC-TV Channel 4 held a small lead at 11 p.m.
They finished in the same positions during the sweeps of May, 1987. A year ago, KABC won all the news blocks, including 11 p.m., going away.
In the current season-to-date news totals, KABC leads at 4, 5 and 6 p.m. KNBC holds a slight edge over KABC at 11 p.m., but KABC could move into the lead if the Winter Olympics delivers the audience that ABC expects.
KCBS's Sorenson blames anchor defections and schizophrenic news policies and philosophies for his station's third-place position but thinks viewers eventually will tune in once "those scars" heal.
"But I'm not expecting any miracles (this sweeps)," Sorenson said. "KABC will win hands down; I would bet the ranch on it. KNBC will not do as well as in November because of the Olympics."
Management from the independent stations, while fighting a separate battle, also must deal with the presence of the Olympics.
"The Winter Games in '84 wiped out everybody in sight in Los Angeles," says Steve Bell, general manager at KTLA Channel 5. "You really can't counter against them; it's like countering against 'The Cosby Show.' "
While downplaying the importance of this particular February sweeps period, Bell acknowledged that "we do put our best foot forward for competitive reasons."
Nielsen numbers for last November found KTLA with a 4.2 ratings average from sign-on to sign-off, followed by KCOP Channel 13's 4.1, KTTV Channel 11 with 3.8 and KHJ-TV Channel 9 with 2.6.
In fact, that has been the relative positioning of L.A. independents for the past couple years, though KTTV has gained ground since Fox Television took over.
Each has its strengths: KTLA easily takes the 10 p.m. news slot and late night fringe; KCOP excels in early fringe, and KTTV is strong in early fringe and weekend prime time.
And weaknesses: "Daytime is not a bastion of major audience or revenue potential in this marketplace for indies," explained KCOP station manager Rick Feldman. "Basically, we all do a 2 rating. No one does anything in daytime except KABC."
"The real fight," said Feldman, "is in the 8 o'clock movies."
All but KHJ present film features from 8 to 10 p.m. in quest of the audience disenfranchised by network series programming, and, this time out, Olympic defectors.
"What people look to in independent stations in prime time is an alternative to what they see on the networks," said Bell, "and there is a core audience that likes movies."
And the Olympics throw a huge wrench into those workings.
Bell finds it perplexing. "Olympics have a very broad demographic appeal--it's basically the whole family--so it's hard to pick out a specific area. We put on lots of blockbusters and first-run movies and hope for the best."
But KCOP's Feldman sees the Olympics as an opportunity to lure viewers to the independents. Does that mean he thinks KCOP will grab first among the independents during the February sweeps?
"Whether we win or they (KTLA) win, it isn't going to be by much," he says. "What can I tell you? I think we're going to win this time."
Bell wasn't quite as sure.
"I think we're going to win locally, but it could depend on how well the Olympics do because this market always has gone nuts for the Olympics," he said.
"But if you worried too much about them, you would end up taking a defeatist attitude and probably wind up putting a blank card on the screen," Bell concluded, "and you can't do that."