TV sweeps periods bring a combination of excitement and anxiety to most people who work in television. It's the time that Nielsen ratings are taken at stations and the networks. Those measurements determine what is broadcast and can change TV careers forever.
TV Sweeps Periods
In most local DMA areas, Nielsen ratings are taken in February, May, July, and November. Each of these rating periods (also called "sweeps") are conducted over four weeks.
Depending on the size of the DMA, the ratings are recorded electronically or by paper diary. Nielsen selects a small number of families whose TV viewing patterns will be used to reflect those of the local area or of the entire nation.
Nielsen will release "overnights", which are the previous day's ratings results based on the numbers it gets electronically. That's why you can get a snapshot of the ratings of network shows like American Idol the day after it is broadcast. The overnight ratings don't take into account the viewers who fill out diaries of what they watched and mail them to Nielsen. Those numbers usually take about a month to tabulate and release.
The reason TV sweeps periods create tension in the TV industry is that they are a report card of the programs viewers like best and which ones they ignore. From a newsroom at a small affiliate station all the way up to the top jobs at the networks, the ratings can lead to firings, promotions or TV show cancellations.
Boost Your Content During TV Sweeps
You can mark your calendar for the four rating months and know those will be the times you'll see the best programming. TV executives are all competing to grab your attention.
During prime-time, you'll see special guests, cliffhanger episodes and other devices used to get more people to watch a show. Local TV stations follow the same pattern with their newscasts, producing investigative reports and special features that are broadcast specifically during a TV sweeps period to boost their audience.
A common way to boost content is through a "tie-in" to another program. If a character in a popular prime-time show is the victim of date rape, you can produce a local news report on date rape to air in that night's newscast. This technique can also be found on the network morning shows, which might preview the date rape episode, interview a date rape victim and talk to a date rape expert -- all as a way of capitalizing on the storyline in the prime time show.
Sharpen Your Promotion During TV Sweeps
All your efforts to produce better content during TV sweeps periods will be wasted if they're not promoted correctly. Your advertising is a critical part of building your audience.
Of the six types of media advertising, topical promotion is the most important during TV sweeps. Your message needs to be both compelling and simple -- "Watch us tonight."
Using the date rape example, it is critical that during the prime-time program featuring that topic there appears a topical promotion for that night's newscast touting the local date rape story. You want to drive the prime time audience straight to the newscast.
That's a good method to get viewers to sample a newscast that isn't number one in the DMA. You're telling people who may otherwise switch to the market-leading station they usually watch to give your station a try because of this important story.
Other Ways to Improve Your Ratings During TV Sweeps
TV executives are masters at manipulating audiences during TV sweeps. They have tricks beyond focusing on content or promotion.
Expect to see some stations and occasionally the networks unveil lavish "watch and win" sweepstakes or another type of media contest. Prizes are awarded if a viewer stays glued to the TV and calls in with a secret phrase at the appointed time. The TV executives are counting on some of these people to also be Nielsen families, who will have their viewing habits recorded.
A station or network wouldn't be able to produce a commercial saying, "If you are a Nielsen family during this TV sweeps period, remember that you're watching Channel 4." Nielsen doesn't allow such blatant attempts to skew their results.
Some stations may skirt the line by putting out ads that say, "If anyone asks, tell them you're watching Channel 4." That may seem like a lot of effort directed at just a handful of families in the DMA, but remember that if even just a few of them change what they report to Nielsen, it can have a huge impact on the ratings.
All of this may seem silly, especially to people who work in industries outside media, but when TV careers are on the line based on the viewing habits of a handful of people, every effort has to be made to drive up the numbers. A TV sales department then uses the higher ratings to boost their ad rates to bring in more money by selling TV advertising.