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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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The Reason Supreme Court Justices Wear Black Robes

Judge Thomas Patrick Thornton (left) is sworn in as a federal judge by Judge Arthur F. Lederle (right) on February 15, 1949.
Judge Thomas Patrick Thornton (left) is sworn in as a federal judge by Judge Arthur F. Lederle (right) on February 15, 1949.

Professional attire can go a long way in communicating the level of respect you have for your occupation and the people around you. Lawyers don’t show up for court in shorts and politicians don’t often address crowds in sleeveless T-shirts.

So it stands to reason that the highest court in the country should have a dress code that reflects the gravity of their business, which is why most judges, including judges on the Supreme Court, are almost always bedecked in black robes. Why black?

As Reader's Digest reports, judges donning black robes is a tradition that goes back to judicial proceedings in European countries for centuries prior to the initial sitting of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1790. Despite that, there’s no record of whether the Justices went for a black ensemble. That wasn’t officially recorded until 1792—but the robes weren’t a totally solid color. From 1792 to 1800, the robes were black with red and white accents on the sleeves and in the front.

It is likely that Chief Justice John Marshall, who joined as the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1801, led the shift to a black robe—most likely because a robe without distinctive markings reinforces the idea that justice is blind. The all-black tradition soon spread to other federal judges.

But according to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, there is no written or official policy about the robes, and the Justices are free to source them however they like—typically from the same companies who outfit college graduates and choir singers. It’s certainly possible to break with tradition and arrive on the bench without one, as Justice Hugo Black did in 1969; Chief Justice William Rehnquist once added gold stripes to one of his sleeves. But for the most part, judges opt for basic black—a message that they’re ready to serve the law.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]