Time has come to sweep away stunt months

Nov 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It’s sweeps time again. That means stations shamelessly pulling out the stops when it comes to attracting viewers to local newscasts.
This has got to end.
Let’s face it, sweeps periods, as they now exist, have become a joke. The original intent of the practice-to give an accurate estimate of station viewership-was long ago defeated by the ballyhoo and hype put into the packaging and planning of sweeps-only programming.
As they do every November (and February, and May, and July), the airwaves have become a carnival midway, with breathless barkers at every turn luring hapless passers-by into their tents with promises of scary, lurid or sensational revelations, playing on the human failings of fear, prurient interest and gullibility.
Bring on the sagas of botched plastic surgeries, breast implant disasters and hormone replacement dilemmas. Drag out the tried-and-true hidden camera for reports on vermin-infested restaurants and sociopathic valet parking attendants. And don’t forget to pry otherwise sedentary anchors from their desks and send them out into the field to pretend they’re journalists even though they’re somehow never photographed anywhere near a pencil or notepad.
While the ritual is laughable and some of the approaches ridiculous, there’s no denying that these special reports and investigations pull in viewers. What’s more, the stories, though overhyped, are frequently informative and relevant. In fact, some of the best reporting is saved for sweeps, and that may be the biggest disservice of the system-why shouldn’t deserving stories be served up year-round?
A phony and perhaps even counterproductive practice, sweeps stunting is part of the fading world of Old Time Television. The networks have been steering away from the routine in recent seasons, and sweeps as distinct months increasingly are being rendered irrelevant as more markets become metered and better-informed media buyers discount manufactured results.
But until meters that collect viewing and demographic information can be employed in all markets, many markets still need to use diaries-which are only as effective as even the most Nielsen-compliant viewers’ ability to recall what they watched and where. In those cases, making an impression is what counts, so the old carnival razzmatazz isn’t obsolete quite yet.
In the interim, what about a random system of audience sampling, one that is carried out unannounced-and, as a result, measures station performance during normal operation and better reflects the ratings of a typical newscast?
Stations aren’t kidding anybody. Even the most casual viewer is by now aware of stunting and the implausibility of the sweeps results as any sort of genuine ratings measurement. It no longer makes sense to draw viewers with stunts for a month, lay claim to inflated viewership levels, then return to business as usual.
It’s time to lay this outmoded institution to rest.