Guest Commentary: Cable an Alternative to the Sweeps Game

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The rules may work against you. Media buyers and sellers evaluate all local television based on sweeps, the four periods each year when Nielsen surveys all designated market areas. Sweeps are also the times when broadcasters, networks and syndicators air their best and newest programming or run contests, which invariably inflate program ratings. During nonsweeps months viewers are likely to see a repeat telecast, and ratings averages are lower.
As Erwin Ephron has said, “Nielsen samples weeks as well as people.”
It is the practice of media buyers to estimate the delivery of broadcasts in nonsweeps periods using the only measurement available-the hyped ratings of the most recent sweeps period.
This industry practice can force advertisers to pay for higher-rated programs while having their product ads actually air on consistently lower-rated broadcasts.
The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau analyzed the period from 1999 through 2002 to better understand this situation. Broadcast TV delivers 5 percent to 7 percent fewer household impressions in nonsweeps months than the 12-month-average audience delivery. Cable provides 5 percent to 7 percent greater household delivery in nonsweeps months vs. the average month. Overall, cable delivers bonus impressions vs. the sweeps estimate, while broadcast underdelivers for eight of the 12 months.
In addition, in individual months, because a nonsweeps estimate is based on the preceding hyped period (for example, using a May book’s rating for a June schedule), you could overestimate the actual delivery by 15 percent to 25 percent.
We further analyzed additional data from the AdCom Television Research continuous measurement sample, which yielded similar results. AdCom collects viewing data from cable set-top-box meters in a number of markets 365 days per year, allowing us to see the actual effect of the hyped sweeps on broadcast network viewing at the local level.
Comparing April 2003 to the May 2003 sweeps period, ad-insertable cable showed increased ratings (+2.2), share (+6.0) and HH impressions, while the broadcast networks showed declines (rating -7.1, share -7.9).
Nielsen is now rolling out local People Meters, which employ continuous measurement. They are currently available in Boston, will be used in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago later this year, and will be implemented in all top 10 local markets over the next few years. The chart above shows the effect of 12-month measurement on broadcast ratings using local People Meters in the Boston DMA when comparing the May sweeps with the next three months for adults 25 to 54.
The chart shows a clear example of how a broadcast buy based on a sweep month (in this case May) could dramatically overestimate the subsequent months’ delivery of broadcast ratings while ad-insertable cable ratings remain level.
Nielsen’s local People Meter will allow buyers to negotiate, buy and sell on actual ratings data. Until then, local advertisers should beware when buying local broadcast television.
While some suggest the solution is to buy broadcast stations whose numbers have been deflated during sweeps, I say buy local cable. It’s the only way to ensure you are getting the coverage you bought because cable is the only delivery system that delivers more viewers in nonsweeps months.
Local cable has made great inroads in spite of the fact that current rules of the game are stacked against it. For the most part, local TV ratings still depend on viewers filling out diaries during sweeps periods. We know diaries vastly underestimate demographic audiences viewing cable.
Ad-supported cable has just come off a banner year, achieving milestones in growth of viewership and audience share. In the first quarter of 2003 cable surpassed broadcast in prime share, and in May cable beat broadcast share for the first time during a sweeps month.
In addition, local cable has worked hard to clean up its act. Best practices for calculating sellable and insertable impressions for local cable, which do not include alternate delivery system homes, have been developed and implemented at the multiple system operator level. Local cable operators have pushed Nielsen to release, starting with the November 2003 sweeps, the total viewing source DVD, which will allow buyers to access local wired cable ratings (without ADS homes) on a DMA-equivalent basis. Early next year Nielsen will include universe estimates for large MSOs and hard interconnects in each VIP book, so buyers will have third-party developed coverage areas for their buys.
Before playing in the local TV ad marketplace, be sure you understand the rules of the game.
Ira Sussman is VP of research for the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.