How Do TV Sweeps Periods Work?

iStock/gaiamoments
iStock/gaiamoments

Television’s February sweeps period started Thursday and runs through March 2, so brace yourself for a slew of guest stars, wedding episodes, and other attention-grabbers. We all know that TV networks try to spike their ratings during sweeps, but how exactly does the system work? Why do networks care about these particular weeks in the first place? Let’s take a look at some sweeps questions.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

When did sweeps begin?

The idea of sweeps dates back to 1954. That year, ratings research juggernaut Nielsen began sending a sample of households around the country little diaries in which the family would record everything it watched on TV for a seven-day period. These diaries were then returned to Nielsen and used to estimate the size of shows’ audiences. Over time, the sweeps period got longer, and even though we still hear talk of “sweeps week,” the modern sweeps period actually lasts four weeks.

How did we end up with this system?

Blame our crummy collective handwriting.

When Nielsen began sending out the viewing diaries in 1954, it was apparent that taking the time to read and collate all of the data from thousands of handwritten diaries was a pretty epic task. To cut down on the workload, Nielsen decided it would only send out diaries for four-week periods four times a year. Viewers would get the diaries in February, May, July, and November, and the data collected in each survey could be used for the next three months.

Where did the name “sweeps” come from, then?

The name “sweeps” is another artifact of Nielsen’s early methodology. Collecting all of those diaries and recording the data was thorny task, so to simplify the process the company collected the seven-day diaries by region. Nielsen collected the Northeast’s diaries first and then “swept” across the country until it had the logs of West Coast viewers.

Do sweeps really “set the advertising rates” for the next quarter?

Yes and no. National ads make up the majority of networks’ advertising revenues; a typical half-hour primetime show will feature six minutes of national ads and just two minutes of local ads. Sweeps don’t affect the rates for national ads, which are set using year-round national data.

Sweeps do affect the rates for the two minutes of local ads, though. The month-long bonanza of stunt casting and very special episodes determines how much local advertisers will be shelling out to air their ads for the following three months. This system gives networks a huge financial incentive to cram every ratings-grabbing ploy they can into any sweeps period.

Is it just me, or does this system make zero sense?

It’s not just you. Back in the days when all of the viewing diaries were handwritten, the logistical hurdles of collecting the data made the sweeps system seem reasonable. Now that the process could be computerized, it makes much less sense. The system is somewhat akin to not eating for a week before weighing yourself then claiming the scale’s readout is your “real” weight.

Local advertisers loathe the sweeps system because it artificially inflates audience numbers, which in turn inflates the ad rates they have to pay. Networks and commission-based ad agencies love sweeps for just this reason, though. Since the local advertisers are mostly relatively small ad buyers in the grand scheme of things, they don’t have much leverage, so the sweeps system can continue to flourish.

Do people really still fill out paper diaries?

Yes. A 2004 piece by Sean Rocha in Slate estimated that Nielsen was still leafing through 1.6 million diaries each year. Nielsen has rolled out an automated alternative called the Local People Meter that can register audience information easily and more reliably. According to Nielsen’s website, the Local People Meters are already in place in the country’s largest media markets, and in 2007 the company announced plans to roll the LPM technology into 56 of the top 63 media markets. Theoretically, these meters could spell curtains for sweeps because they could easily and accurately estimate year-round audience sizes without the need for arbitrary sample periods like sweeps.

What Is Figgy Pudding Anyway?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is an ode to figgy pudding disguised as a straightforward Christmas song. Three out of four verses in some versions are dedicated to the dish. So after listening to enough holiday music this December, you may start to wonder: What is figgy pudding anyway? And is it really so good that you'd actually beg for it on a stranger's doorstep through song?

According to NPR, figgy pudding, also called plum pudding, isn't pudding—at least not the kind of pudding many Americans think of when they hear the word—and it contains neither figs nor plums. In the UK, pudding is used as catch-all to describe any sweet dish served after a meal. Figgy pudding isn't creamy or custardy, but it is a sugary cake, which qualifies it as pudding overseas.

In its most basic form, figgy pudding is a steamed, often domed-shaped cake made with alcohol and dried fruit. The first version of figgy pudding surfaced in 14th-century Britain. Back then, it was a stew-like, savory dish containing beef and mutton as well as fruit and wine. In the 15th century, this mixture was stuffed into animal casings to make sausages that would last through the winter.

By the end of the 16th century, figgy pudding had transitioned to a fully sweet dish—right around the same time when carolers started singing "Now bring us some figgy pudding" to their wealthy neighbors around Christmas. Today, the dessert is commonly filled with currants, raisins, and soaked in rum or brandy.

So where did the first half of its name come from? In pre-Victorian England, the word plum was applied to any type of dried fruit, including raisins, so plum pudding caught on. Figs occasionally appeared in recipes throughout the dish's history, though they're not considered a traditional ingredient.

If you're thinking about cooking a throwback feast this Christmas, don't stop at figgy pudding. From oyster stew to mincemeat pie, here are some more classic British dishes that have ties to the holiday.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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