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.

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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.

Why Are There 10 Hot Dogs to a Pack But Only 8 Buns?

tacar/iStock via Getty Images
tacar/iStock via Getty Images

Watching competitive eating champion Joey Chestnut cram dozens of hot dogs down his throat would make anyone crave a grilled log of processed meat this summer. But shopping for hot dogs can be a confusing experience. The dogs are typically sold in packs of 10, but the buns are sold in packs of eight. What's behind this strange dog and bun inequality?

According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council—yes, there is a National Hot Dog and Sausage Council—there’s a good reason for the discrepancy. For starters, distributors of hot dogs are almost always different from manufacturers of baked goods like rolls. The hot dogs are sold in packs of 10 because producers of meat (or meat-like) products selected that quantity when hot dogs started to sell at retail grocery stores in the 1940s. Oscar Mayer, which led the charge into direct-to-consumer hot dog packaging, sold hot dogs by the pound in accordance with how meat is typically priced. Having 10 dogs that weighed 1.6 ounces each seemed like the ideal distribution of weight.

Bakeries, meanwhile, have standards of their own. Buns and sandwich rolls are usually sold eight to a pack because the baking trays for the elongated buns are typically sized to fit that number. Two sets of four buns come off the tray, which is the reason why buns are often still attached to one another when you open a bag.

These standards were created independently of one another: Bakeries weren’t too preoccupied with hot dogs when they were settling on a four-roll tray standard, and hot dog manufacturers weren’t thinking about how difficult it would be for bakeries to break from their conveyor system to offer 10 buns to a pack.

It can be frustrating if you buy just one or two packages of each, but if you’re hosting a big enough party, the uneven number doesn’t matter. You just need to buy five packages of buns and four packages of hot dogs to have 40 matching pairs. No complicated calculations required.

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

When Are the Dog Days of Summer?

Dorottya_Mathe/iStock via Getty Images
Dorottya_Mathe/iStock via Getty Images

The official “dog days” of summer begin on July 3 and end on August 11. So how did this time frame earn its canine nickname? It turns out the phrase has nothing to do with the poor pooches who are forever seeking shade in the July heat, and everything to do with the nighttime sky.

Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the sky. The ancient Greeks noticed that in the summer months, Sirius rose and set with the Sun, and they theorized that it was the bright, glowing Dog Star that was adding extra heat to the Earth in July and August.

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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