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 Happened to the Physical Copy of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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