Network TV 'Sweeps' RIP?

It has been years since “sweeps”–the period in February, May, July and November that sets ad rates for local stations–mattered much to the networks. This year the strike will take all the suspense out of it, boiling it down to who has the best reality shows. And since Fox has “American Idol,” we’ll just go ahead and call it now: Fox wins. No doubt there will be a press release.

But as the networks/studios look to reinvent their business models, “sweeps” is one of those traditional TV calendar items, like the fall season, pilot season, and upfronts, that are up for re-evaluation as the networks use the strike as an opportunity to reinvent their business models.

The broadcast networks are measured by Nielsen electronically on a constant basis, so the notion of “sweeps” exists for them as an opportunity to claim bragging rights, as in “we won sweeps!” The reason the networks still program for sweeps is to help out their smallest local affiliates–those TV stations outside the major markets whose ad rates are set by diaries created during the month-long sweeps period. That’s why local news rolls out stories like this amazing one on porn/nazis on the PlayStation Portable.

But this February, the networks will be delivering fewer viewers to their affiliates. One of the two big ratings events–the Academy Awards–may be canceled. And the networks’ relationships with their affiliates–once primary–is now a back-burner concern as they deal with the strike and distributing their content digitally.

What will replace sweeps? A more accurate, persistent measurement system from Nielsen (taking people meters nationally) or perhaps from another player–Rentrak?–which will harvest set-top data to do the job. Then again, by the time old media figures it out, the migration of TV to IP networks will make the question academic.

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