There's supposed to be a serious purpose behind the ongoing February sweeps. This is one of only four times a year when audiences of every TV station in the country are measured in order to set TV advertising prices for the following quarter.
The rub is that the ratings generated during sweeps are not taken seriously by the advertising agencies that buy most of the commercial time on TV.
"I don't really care what the (ratings) books say during sweeps. I know that the numbers are hiked," said Barbara Post, a buyer at Los Angeles-based Dailey & Associates.
Paul Isacsson, executive vice president and director of broadcast purchasing for New York-based Young & Rubicam, said, "Stations use it (the sweeps numbers). We don't."
Stations are successful in using sweeps numbers to get an advertising price "only at tiny, unsophisticated agencies where there's maybe one person in a media department and they might not even subscribe to Nielsen or Arbitron," said Jim Surmanek, senior vice president in the Los Angeles office of J. Walter Thompson.
According to Surmanek, "Eighty to 90% of all TV time purchased in the U.S. is purchased by sophisticated buyers. So the effect of what the stations are doing to hype programs during the sweeps really only applies to one out of five ad dollars, at most."
At Los Angeles stations, sweeps can increase station audiences anywhere from 1% to 30%--or not at all, Surmanek said. "It's very inconsistent."
But a station whose ratings benefit the most during sweeps can also have the steepest drop-off the following month. Take the 11 p.m. local news race during last year's February sweeps: KABC-TV Channel 7 led with a 10 Nielsen rating, followed by KNBC Channel 4 with a 9 and KCBS Channel 2 with a 7. By March, KABC was down to an 8 rating while the numbers for KNBC and KCBS were holding steady.
"But KABC was still calling itself No. 1 in news," an advertising executive at another agency noted.
"When someone says they're the No. 1 news in California, they're getting that from the sweeps," Post agreed. "The station's justification will be, 'In the (sweeps) book, I am doing a 20 rating. I don't care if I'm doing a 10 now; the book says I'm doing a 20.' But if you buy L.A. (regularly), you know that the news during sweeps is going to be the bathing suit issues and the freeway congestion. There are a lot of stupid pranks."
To counter the stations' sweeps ratings, buyers of ad time in Los Angeles and the 14 other biggest markets in the country have access to ongoing electronic audience measurements that take place throughout the year.
But what about markets dependent on the four major sweeps periods (February, May, July and November) for their only Nielsen and Arbitron audience ratings? How do the agencies get around the sweeps numbers there?
In several ways: "There are other markets you can use as parallels around the year," Isacsson said.
For stations that are network affiliates, "The networks supply us with the 'dailies,' which give us the current audience share of each show and break down each market by day part, station and program," said Pete Stassi, senior vice president and director of local broadcasting for New York-based BBDO Worldwide.
In the case of independent stations, which aren't covered by the networks' dailies, "Outside the sweeps, you can figure that when they're not showing the good movies and the hot shows, the audience can drop by maybe 10% or 20%," Stassi said.
Agencies that swallow the "hypo-ed sweeps numbers," as Stassi calls them, are likely to be so-called "creative boutiques, where they may have the capability to project past the sweeps numbers but don't actually pursue doing it," he said.
At J. Walter Thompson, "We do three- and five-year tracking of stations and say, 'What has this station done in the last five years, where are the peaks and valleys, what's our best estimate of what will happen in the future?' " Surmanek said. "We (ad agencies) are all getting a lot smarter and having more computer capability to track rating trends and thereby soften or diminish any peaks and valleys because of promotions that are driven in order to hype ratings."
Young & Rubicam's Isacsson isn't sure that the millions of dollars the networks invest in special programming during sweeps to help boost ratings for their affiliated stations pays off: "It's wonderful to have a 'Noble House' on the air, but because it's running opposite the Olympics, it will probably generate less audience and less ad revenue than it should and the network will probably not make any money on the first run."
"I would think that the networks and the national advertisers would probably prefer to see the programming spread out over a greater period of time," he said.