Opinion: Sweeps Don't Matter

by - October 31, 2017

When I first started working in TV news, I had no idea what "sweeps" were. I'd never heard of these four magical months that determined stations' rankings. Given my background in print, that's not all too surprising. But even now, after eight years in the business, "sweeps" still don't mean much.

So what are "sweeps"? Otherwise known as ratings periods, sweeps happen four times a year - February, May, July and November. During those designated time frames, Nielson collects data on who's watching what and when. In my neck of the woods, they're still using paper diaries for the time being, which means the results aren't necessarily 100% accurate.

What does sweeps mean for local television stations? Traditionally, it means special reports and a finer attention to detail. Oh, and no one can take off. That's right, folks. There are four months out of the year I can't take off a single day. And for what? Are more people watching the news during those four months? There is no evidence to support that, and there most certainly are not more people tuning in during July (hello, summer vacation).

The idea of "sweeps" essentially tells stations that only four months matter and those four months are reserved for your best content. Seriously, stations will specifically set up feature stories or even investigative pieces to coincide with one of the chosen four. How impractical does that sound? As someone who's gone through more than a dozen ratings periods and juggled the scheduling that revolves around them, I can assure you that there is no practicality of sweeps. And quite honestly, I don't see any pay off at the close of the book.

So what makes sweeps so special? I would say it's for the sake of winning awards, but that's not true. Submissions don't have to be from within sweeps periods, and in fact, you're not allowed to submit shows that aired during sweeps. I can't even say that it's to get an accurate gauge of each quarter as the months aren't equally spaced out. The truth is that sweeps are tied to the months new shows are typically released; it has nothing to do with local TV and everything to do with the big boys.

The reality of news is that it happens every day. Your best story of the year may happen in January or August or even December, and you won't sit on it until sweeps starts. You can't. Great stories shouldn't just be reserved for February, May, July or December. And the work we're doing as journalists matters 12 months of the year, not just four.

Sweeps don't matter.

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