What are sweeps?

May 17, 2010

I used to work in an industry with its own set of Nielsen ratings, so I like to think I know a bit about how TV ratings work.  In the healthcare journal industry, Nielsen would send out surveys twice a year to a random selection of doctors asking about their journal reading habits.  Before those surveys went out, our journals’ marketing department would plan extra promotions that would correspond with the doctors’ receiving of those surveys.  In that way, our journals would be at the forefront of their minds when they were filling out those surveys.

Sweeps in television works in a similar way.  During a few weeks of the year, we are bombarded with episodes of our favorite TV shows that are extra-long, or have cliff-hangers, or are in special locations so that they catch our eyes.  At the same time, Nielsen collects television journals from a smaller sampling of people (than the usual sampling for daily/weekly ratings) that include a much more detailed set of information, including the type of people watching certain shows, rather than simply how many people.

But we are entering a new era of television viewing, which includes watching shows on our phones, iPads, computers, in addition to our TVs.  By using Hulu, iTunes, and the network websites themselves, we can watch our favorite shows even if we don’t own a television.  So how can Nielsen realistically  measure the eyeballs watching the shows on the internet?  Well, now there is a new measurement called engagement, or “a show’s ability to command attention from viewers”.

Such rankings turn the TV model — in which success comes from attracting the broadest audiences possible at a single moment — on its ear. Yet as TV outlets start to rely more on viewership that comes from DVR playback, iPhone, iPod and iPad viewing and online streaming, figuring out which shows drive fans to seek them out and watch them no matter where they run is an exercise that’s gaining considerable traction.

It was always amazing to me the information that was available regarding the readership of healthcare journals, and in the healthcare industry in general!  So if there is the ability to track personal data such as readership, medicine usage, prescription refills, etc., Nielsen will be able to come up with ways to track TV viewership using different media sources.  Of that, I am sure.

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