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Sweeps Mentality Still Part of Stations DNA

There are some who insist the concept of sweeps is a thing of the past. WPRI/WNAC Providence President/General Manager Jay Howell is certainly not among them.

On the opening night of the November ratings period, LIN's CBS affiliate WPRI unveiled the culmination of a major investigative report revealing a state government's fraud unit that the station's I-team says is guilty of committing a little fraud itself. Howell says “Fighting Fraud” took three months and considerable expense to produce, and the station gave the report every chance to hit maximum late-news viewership in the No. 53 DMA: The nearly six-minute story and a 3½-minute follow-up on how it came together had starring roles in a commercial-free late newscast on Oct. 29.

While some say modern audience measurement such as Local People Meters (LPMs) has made the sweeps periods less relevant, others believe the four ratings periods that set advertising rates are vital as ever. “Sweeps are definitely a time for us to show off,” Howell says. “We're saying, 'Here's what we're doing, and here's why you should switch to WPRI.'”

Nielsen's ratings periods, currently representing November, February, May and July, have been a local television convention for about a half-century. The term came from the ratings giant mailing paper diaries to homes across the country during those key periods, thus “sweeping” the nation with the paperwork.

Stations have historically pulled out all the stops to grab viewers and set their ad rates by those watermarks. Breathless promos about bloody murders, splashy outdoor campaigns and often outrageous stunts, such as WOIO Cleveland anchor Sharon Reed (in)famously doffing her duds to report on a nude photographic installation in November 2004, were common.

While the high-octane promos still exist, the zany stunts are increasingly a thing of the past. With Nielsen's more sophisticated audience metrics—25 markets will have the LPMs when Charlotte, N.C., adopts them in January—some say the ratings emphasis is a 365-day battle, with more detailed viewer information available almost around the clock. “We've always had the belief that viewers are not like light switches, to be turned on and turned off during sweeps,” says Steve Hammel, VP/general manager at WRAL Raleigh, the No. 26 market. “We do quality journalism and reporting year-round.”

The Nexstar stations, which don't subscribe to Nielsen ratings and don't participate in the sweeps races, share a similar philosophy. “It sounds trite, but we are in sweeps every day,” says Nexstar Executive VP/Co-COO Tim Busch. “Every day, we're covering great news and creating great product.”

Yet a broad panel of general managers almost unanimously insists that sweeps remain both part of stations' DNA and their business strategy. “No matter what people say, everybody still holds out [viewer-grabbing stories] until November,” says an executive in a top-five market who asked not to be named. “Everybody says there's no such thing as sweeps, but everybody still plays for it.”

Even if sweeps play less of a role in setting ad rates in the larger markets, general managers say the figures still serve a number of roles, such as establishing bragging rights, getting favorable ink from local reporters and promoting the station's brand for the widest swath of viewers. And many of those viewers are drawn in by the network's cliffhanger finales, stunt-casting and other sweeps sweeteners.

“It's a point in time that everyone can agree on,” says WXII Winston-Salem President/General Manager Hank Price. “Sweeps are as important today as they've ever been.”

May is often considered the most important period, as its numbers are used for twice as long as the other books. (Many discredit the July sweeps, with viewers on vacation and the broadcast networks largely in repeats.) But the November sweeps—running Oct. 29 to Nov. 25—are unique as the first close examination of who's tuning in to the fall programs.

That the country—and the local TV community—continues to be mired in economic misery perhaps ups the ante come this year's period. “When there's less money to go around, you want the biggest share of what money is available,” says Frank N. Magid Senior VP Bill Hague. “When the economy is worse, it can be more important [for stations] to be noticed.”

Local sweeps specials range from the revisiting of a Halloween murder cold case on WHIO Dayton on Oct. 29, to scamming mortgage bankers at KPHO Phoenix, to spotlighting the reportedly fraudulent fraud unit on WPRI, which Howell says represented the largest investment in an investigative story during his eight years as WPRI boss.

“There's still financial incentive,” he says, “for us to do well in sweeps.”

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