What are sweeps and why does it matter to the average television watcher? Well read on and we'll explain.
Started by Arthur C. Nielsen back in 1923, the Nielsen ratings have remained the official indicator for the television industry ever since. Think of the numbers as the EKG for the life and death of a TV show.
The Nielsen people have a couple of different ways in which they determine what television programs people are watching. They do this by carefully hand picking a number of people throughout the country to represent the typical television watcher. In other words, they represent us.
To get the numbers, Nielsen uses a sample of more than 5000 households, which means a little over 13,000 people were approached by the company and agreed to participate. Installers (they call em "Field Reps") come out and hook up special measuring equipment to their TV, VCR, DVR, Cable Box, Satellite Dish, etc. that automatically keeps track of when the TV is turned on and what channel its tuned to. People who have volunteered to be a "Nielsen family" have a little box located near the TV that they use to signal when Mom, Dad or Jr is watching TV. When they sit down, they press a button on the box to let the measuring equipment know who is watching at that time. All the data is then collected by the box and phoned back to Nielsen's main office in the middle of the night, which is then quickly collected and sent out to the networks. This is known as "the overnights."
The other way Nielsen compiles the TV data is by giving people little log books or diaries where they are required to note their television watching habits: What show they watched, how long, what time, etc. In exchange for documenting their TV watching, the people given the diaries are usually paid a crisp one dollar bill.
Four times throughout the year, these diaries are shipped back to Nielsen. Starting on the East coast and sweeping across the country, the data is collected and compiled and the results are presented to the networks. These are known as the sweeps.
What this means to us is that while the data is being logged by the viewers, the networks are working very hard to make sure that people watch their program. Everything on TV suddenly gets a lot more exciting, which is why you may have noticed the networks scrambling to shuffle around their lineups in the past few weeks, pulling dud shows, moving shows to different dates and times, etc. It's all in the hope that the Nielsen families will watch one particular network's programming more than the others. Because ratings equal life to the networks. The higher the numbers, the more profit they can make by adjusting what they can charge for their advertising.
So get comfy and enjoy the circus that's about to unfold on TV as the networks amp up and do cartwheels for your amusement. Expect to see a lot more "special reports" and "Shocking exposes" from the news in the weeks to come. Also, its a safe bet that there will be a lot more T&A, more special guest appearances and a lot less re-runs of other programming.
Here is just a small sampling of things scheduled during the sweeps:
- Chevy Chase will portray a Mel Gibson-like character on Law and Order. The stories ripped from the headlines will have Chase getting arrested, yelling ethnic slurs and we might even hear "sugar tits" uttered on TV. We dont know for sure.
- Salma Hayak, who up till now played only a bit part in the production of "Ugly Betty" that she is the Executive Producer of, will be a main character in the story for the next four episodes.
- Medium returns to the NBC lineup with a "special" two hour premiere.
- With Katie Kouric still running third in the news race, maybe she'll flash the camera or something fun.
- Grey's Anatomy will continue with the riveting story arc of whether anorexic Meredith will choose between a Vet or a Brain Surgeon as her fuck of the week, Izzy will proclaim that she is still fine, and George will pretend that he likes women.
Of course, the question that inevitably gets raised is: why can't the networks provide this level of quality programming all year long?