Imagine you're a network TV executive whose very livelihood depends on selling expensive national advertising. Not only are you responsible for your network, but also local affiliates from Wichita, Kansas, to Tallahassee, Florida.
Your whole business model depends on ratings, and that's never clearer than during those four critical periods of the year called Sweeps Weeks. The numbers you muster during those brief periods will be used to set local advertising rates year-round. So if you're a TV executive, are you going to play it safe during Sweeps Weeks, or are you going to pull out every egregious TV stunt imaginable to grab America's eyeballs?
In popular culture, "Sweeps Week" is shorthand for brazen attempts to lure in viewers using every TV trick in the book.
Sweeps Week stunts have evolved over the decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, Sweeps Week was dominated by epic miniseries like "Roots," "The Holocaust," and the controversial nuclear apocalypse flick "The Day After" [source: Wallenstein]. More recently, networks have shifted to sensationalist "ripped from the headlines" TV movies, like ABC's "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu."
Hit Popular TV shows reserve those most exciting plot twists and special guests stars for Sweeps Weeks. If one of the characters on "Friends" or "How I Met Your Mother" had a baby or got married, it was bound to happen during Sweeps Week. The same with those bizarre episodes of "CSI" featuring Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber (no, that wasn't a nightmare).
Local TV stations get in on the act, too. Sweeps Week is when local news anchors focus all of their journalistic energy — and jettison all remaining integrity — on broadcasting stories that warn of imminent death from everyday objects ("Spatulas That Kill!" "Killer Yogurt!" and "Death by Automated Doors!") or feature half-naked women ("Sports Bras That Kill!").
Sweeps Weeks stunts might be going extinct, though [source: Wallenstein]. As increasingly more TV viewers stream their favorite shows online or "binge watch" an entire season long after the original air dates, it makes less sense to base advertising rates on broadcast TV ratings alone. In fact, in many Sweep periods of the 2000s, the networks haven't done any "stunt casting" or special programming to boost ratings. On the next page, we'll discuss the fate of Sweeps Week in the "post-broadcast" age.