If you’ve ever wondered why Oprah is concluding her show in May and not December or why some of the best television can be seen in November, February, and July then you are subject to the lure of Sweeps – the time of year when networks set ad rates for their upcoming programming based on the number of viewers tuned into their shows during these four key months.
According to various reports online, Sweeps were created to calculate the responses of handwritten television viewing diaries of surveyed Americans by A.C. Nielsen. A time consuming practice conducted four times yearly, "sweeping" from the Northeast to the rest of the country. That meant that the ratings and number of viewers who watched was based on 16 weeks not 52. So spectacular finishes, electrifying cliff hangers and overall great programming drive the greatest viewership and the highest ad rates.
These days, the Sweeps period still exists to assess local television viewing (see national viewing ratings based on electronic meters below) but the game has changed dramatically.
There is no more TV season from September to May, but rather a rolling introduction to new programming in other months such as January and June. (Fox and American Idol come to mind.)
Cable networks are changing the paradigm by offering up original programming that is garnering all the Emmy's (Mad Men anyone?).
There are those surveyed by Nielsen year round who are using electronic meters to note their viewing habits -- a statistically represented audience selected to reflect the nation's population. (Roughly 1,400 select households reflect 300 million Americans’ viewing habits.)
Although Sweeps may recognize the nature of what we watch, some fundamental changes in how we watch TV programming in 2011 is changing the rules too.
Networks are discovering that there is now two statistics -- for live viewing and for the population that will see the program up to seven days after it has been initially aired. TiVo or other DVR capabilities are proving that TV shows (and their advertising!) aren't dead, they are just resuscitated/resurrected by us as required over the course of a busy week.
Our computers and smart phones are also being called into service for TV programming -- we don't sit in front of the actual television set anymore. And until Hulu and its competitors change, we can see it for free, but can't fast-forward through the commercials.
Some cable broadcasters are sending out different commercials to different customers based on their individual demographic information. (Our own Cablevision is conducting these advertising tests in Long Island.)
And the latest phone apps have the ability to screen the commercial and take a snapshot of a "audio tag" in the commercial to get further information, even free product samples and coupons. (Pepsi Max is offering 50,000 coupons in this way this season.)
So when Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walk-off on Bill O'Reilly during The View, when Lilly and Marshall are pregnant on “How I Met Your Mother”, or the screen goes black on Tony Soprano, et.al. on HBO while they hand the Lombardi trophy to the Super Bowl champs, consider the millions watching along with you. Millions watching as well as millions being charged to advertise during this universal viewing experience.