Stations Call March Sweeps 'Useless'

Lack of comparison for results will make numbers less valid

If many TV stations had their way, there would have been no winter sweeps at all this year, in February or in March. But a winter sweep is included in TV stations' contracts with Nielsen, and the show is going on.

Typically, Nielsen measures sweeps in all media markets nationwide in November, February and May. A little-noticed sweep is also conducted in July.

Stations were looking to pass on the February sweep because the digital transition was scheduled to take place on Feb. 17. That huge change was expected to skew the results too much to make holding a sweeps worthwhile, and Nielsen then said it would postpone the sweep to March. Many stations told the measurement company they didn't want to pay for that either, but Nielsen reminded stations that they were contractually obligated to do so and that it had already spent money preparing to run the March sweeps.

“It's just a mess,” says Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon Strategies, a syndication consultancy. “They should have just forgotten winter sweeps. Doing it in March is a waste of time. There will be nothing to compare these ratings to, and ratings in a void are useless.”

“We received a lot of suggestions about February sweeps,” says Nielsen spokesperson Gary Holmes. “In the end, we felt there should be a sweep in the first quarter and that it should not be in February because of issues with the transition. Our feeling was that the industry did not want an information vacuum from November to May,”

Nielsen gathers ratings information in several different ways. Local people meters in the top 10 markets gather the most precise demographic information about what people are watching locally, while people meters across the country acquire national demographic information, such as how CBS Television Distribution's Oprah did among women 18-49 in any given week as well as in households.

Set-top meters in the top 50 markets measure what people are watching, but do not measure demographic information. Markets below the top 50 are measured with diaries only. That's why sweeps remain important in those markets, and why it takes about a month for those measurements to be tallied.

But stations and syndicators have several reasons why it makes little sense to go ahead in March. First, no legitimate comparison is available: February is a darker, colder month, so people tend to watch less TV. And this year, daylight-saving time starts March 8, so even fewer people will be in front of their sets. With no apples-to-apples comparison, sales reps have nothing to match performances up with when they are trying to sell ads.

Moreover, by the time all the data from the March sweeps is collected, it will be time for May sweeps, which will supersede March.

“It's going to be the sweep that never happened,” Larsen says. “Once it's over, no one is going to pay any attention to it.”

All syndicated shows seek ratings bumps in sweeps, but none have the opportunity to stunt like the day-and-date talk shows, which try to book the hottest guests, schedule the most titillating topics and do everything just a little bigger and brighter. Here’s what the talkers have in store this month:

--CTD’s Oprah is keeping its schedule close, but expect to see Dr. Oz and Suze Orman dispense helpful advice, while some of reality TV’s hottest new stars sit on Oprah’s couch. Winfrey also will track celebrity chefs as they move in with viewer families and cook for them.

--CTD’s Dr. Phil’s been having ratings success in this down economy with shows on how to handle your money; another episode is teed up for March 2. Phil will also be telling people on March 3 how to have more sex, and the good doctor will do a two-episode series on young women in young marriages on March 17 and 24.

--Disney-ABC’s Live with Regis and Kelly is looking forward to its annual “Beautiful Baby Week” from March 9-13. So far, some 200,000 parents have entered their kids in the competition. The top ten are chosen by producers and will appear on the show on March 9. By midnight of that day, viewers need to vote on their favorites. The top five will be revealed on Tuesday and flown to New York to appear on the show. In partnership with Gerber, the most beautiful baby and his or her parents gets $125,000 to apply toward college, while the four runners-up each get $25,000. 

--Warner Bros.’ Ellen DeGeneres is always about big guests, wacky stunts, great giveaways, and of course, lots of dancing. This March sweeps isn’t much different for the comedian, with guests including Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, Keith Urban, Christina Applegate, Dwayne Johnson, Carol Burnett, Flo Rida, Rascal Flats and Paul Rudd. Ellen also will host the runner-up and final winner from this round of ABC’s The Bachelor as well as American Idol’s cast-offs starting March 16 and running until the Idol finale.

Ellen will also hold a game week from March 9-13, with the final winner and one lucky viewer getting swept away on an extravagant trip to Hawaii as soon as the games conclude.

--In honor of March Madness, CTD’s Rachael Ray is holding a bracket-style competition with recipes—instead of basketball teams—making their way into the Edible Eight and the Final Four. The Tastiest Two will face off on the show, and the creators will bag $5,000 worth of groceries. Full details of the contest are available at www.rachaelray.usatoday.com.

NBC Universal has a trio of talkers: Maury, Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos. Wilkos, spun off of Springer’s series, makes his second cross-over appearance on Maury during sweeps. Wilkos also hosts a “teenage summit,” in which he will take on tough topics such as drugs, violence and teen pregnancy.

Maury will lead his viewers on a sort of virtual spring break, heading to Miami Beach for several episodes. Meanwhile, Springer is launching the “Springer Singer Search” to find a song and a singer that best describes the show and its first 18 seasons. Winners will be invited to perform.

--Viewers seem to like to ask CTD’s The Doctors questions, so every Tuesday has become “Ask the Doctors” day. During sweeps, the questions will come from and be about men only on March 3. March 10 is for embarrassing questions. Women will get their chance with an all-female show with all-female doctors later in the month. The Doctors also tackles topics such as hidden health hazards and how to look and feel ten years younger.

--Warner Bros.’ Tyra Banks kicks off sweeps with an interview with Alana Love, a woman who decided to become a prostitute and work at the Moon Light Bunny Ranch in Las Vegas when she was six months pregnant. Tyra’s cameras capture day-to-day life at the ranch, highlighted by a baby shower thrown by the ranch’s other women.

--Finally, NBC Universal’s Martha Stewart is starting a new weekly series to help viewers grow their own gardens starting Tuesday, March 3, and running every Tuesday after that through spring.

The show also has several theme shows set for March sweeps, including one focusing on Atlanta on March 5; Lilly Pulitzer Day on March 11; the new look at Stewart’s magazine, Martha Stewart Living on March 16; a St. Patrick’s Day show on March 17; a dog show on March 18; and a knitting show on March 23. Martha’s craft week coincides with the release of her new book, The Encyclopedia of Crafts, on March 31.

E-mail comments to
palbiniak@gmail.com