Critics of Sweeps Week argue that Nielsen and the broadcast TV networks are relying on an outdated ratings system to measure a 21st-century TV audience. Not only should Sweeps Week be dropped, but the Big Four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — need to rethink their entire business model.
Nielsen already has the "people meter" technology to automatically track half of the TV sets in America. The paper diaries used during Sweeps Week, on the other hand, are wildly undependable, relying on the bad memories and general laziness of the average American couch potato. If Sweeps Week data isn't accurate, and Nielsen has the power to collect instant audience data for local as well as national markets, why not drop Sweeps Week altogether?
For years, advertisers have been asking Nielsen to do away with the paper diaries and rely on more people meters. In 2006, Nielsen announced it would do away with the diaries, but as of 2014, this hasn't happened [source: Adgate]. Is it a question of money? A lack of competition and therefore incentive to change?
Broadcast TV is under attack from several fronts. Cable channels are pulling viewers away from the Big Four in droves. There simply aren't enough ratings bonanzas like "Monday Night Football" and "American Idol" on the broadcast networks to contend with cult cable hits like "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead," and "Game of Thrones." Viewers in the coveted 18-49 demographic are fleeing the fastest, with broadcast losing 17 percent of that audience from 2012 to 2013 alone [source: Stelter].
And then there's the Internet. Netflix has established itself as a major player in streaming TV. The Big Four networks rebroadcast their shows through Hulu, but Nielsen does not currently count online viewers in its ratings. Back in February 2013, Nielsen announced plans to track streaming video, but no such system is yet in place [source: Kelly]. Rival ratings firms like comScore are trying to fill that gap by selling data on digital viewership to the networks [source: Sharma and Stewart].
While revenue at the Big Four broadcast networks is at an all-time low, business at many cable networks (TBS, USA and ESPN, especially) is booming [source: Kissell]. One of the big reasons for this is the failure of the broadcast TV business model, which relies almost exclusively on advertising dollars for revenue. Cable, on the other hands, gets some money from advertising — cable channels use their own Nielsen ratings to set advertising rates — but also a handsome cut of the subscriber fees that households pay every month for cable or satellite service. Netflix also runs on the subscription model. And while broadcast TV mainly adheres to the traditional fall-to-spring TV season (because of Sweeps Weeks), cable and online shows are free to premiere all year round [source: Adgate].
Nielsen appears to be getting with the program — it now tracks social media impressions through its Twitter TV ratings — but it might be too late to save traditional broadcast TV and the attention-grabbing antics of Sweeps Week.
For lots more fascinating explanations of the entertainment industry and pop culture phenomena, check out the related stories below.
Author's Note: How Sweeps Week Works
I don't know anyone who watches broadcast TV. OK, that's not true. I don't know anyone who watches broadcast TV in the traditional sense, meaning tuning into ABC or NBC on a Tuesday night at 8 pm to watch the latest episode of a favorite sitcom. I know plenty of people — myself included — who hear about a good network TV show and watch a couple episodes online when they have an hour to spare. These 30 spare minutes almost never occur at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday. With mobile apps for Netflix, Hulu and several premium cable channels, you don't even have to be home to watch TV — airports and dentist waiting rooms are excellent venues. The very concept of Sweeps Weeks — hinging an entire business model on mailed paper viewing diaries — seems wildly out of step with modern, mobile-ready entertainment and will almost certainly go the way of the dodo.
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- Wallenstein, Andrew. "TV Sweeps Week Surprisingly Stunt Free." NPR. Nov. 3, 2006 (July 24, 2014) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6429167