Saturday, May 28, 2005

Why do all the TV shows end in May?

Continuing my ongoing fascination, and dismay, at American TV: there’s something odd happening at the moment. American TV series shoot in long seasons — 13 or more episodes — compared to the typical 6 episodes of a British TV series. And all the series seem to be ending right now, in big hyped-up finales. Why?

“It’s the way it’s always been”, says Melinda, which doesn’t help me much.

Well, serendipity to the rescue. A recent blog post inspired me to check out The Wisdom of Crowds from the library. And in its chapter on cooperation, it discusses exactly the phenomenon I’m seeing: May is a sweeps month.

What are sweeps, and why do they affect TV so much? To understand this it’s necessary to understand a little of how American broadcast TV works, particularly the distinction between networks and affiliates.

NetworksABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, etc — produce TV: either in-house or by contracting external production companies.

Affiliates — local TV stations, for us including KGO (ABC, San Francisco), KPIX (CBS, San Francisco), KTVU (Fox, Oakland), and KCRA (NBC, Sacramento) — broadcast network TV to their local areas, and are contracted exclusively to their parent networks.

TV is, of course, driven by advertising. Networks sell national advertising. But the US is huge and so a great deal of advertising is local, sold by individual affiliates. Advertising feeds on ratings and demographics: it’s important for an advertiser to know not only how many viewers an advert is going to reach, but what type of viewer.

Nielsen Media Research provides ratings and demographic information for both national and local markets. Nationally, a system of 5,000 “people meters” built into the TVs of selected households capture viewing habits. However, there are too few such meters to produce accurate local statistics. So, four times a year Nielsen mails paper viewing diaries to a selection of households nationwide; the results of these diaries produce detailed local statistics. The process is known as “sweeps”. Nielsen provides more information on measurement processes in their article What TV Ratings Really Mean.

Sweeps are paid for by the local affiliates, and are used by them to set advertising rates for the following season. This means that it’s vitally important for a network, and its local affiliates, to do well in sweeps ratings.

What Nielsen doesn’t say — and The Wisdom of Crowds does — is that the sweeps system is fundamentally flawed. It’s inherently self-selecting, in that it only measures households who chose to return the diaries. And unlike the people-meter system, it’s not real-time: households tend to fill in their diaries after-the-fact, which means that sweeps ratings tend to favour large networks and memorable shows.

And this is why network TV eats itself in May: all the networks are desparately scrambling for sweeps ratings. Everything’s polished to high gloss; season finales are hyped-up big bangs; newly-acquired movies are premiered; and special programming abounds.

The Wisdom of Crowds points out that this is bad for everyone but the affiliates: networks waste programming by scheduling competitively, advertisers get rates that don’t reflect the reality of non-sweeps months, and viewers suffer a feast-and-famine cycle: too much new TV to watch in sweeps months, endless reruns in-between. But the sweeps system is entrenched; switching to a more accurate system of nationwide local people metering would cost too much for any one participant to undertake.

Nielsen does conduct electronic measurements in 56 local markets, but with limited set-tuning information which lacks the all-important demographic information the people meters collect. Nielsen’s attempts to introduce local people meters into the major markets are controversial and unpopular with — surprise! — the major networks, who stand to lose ratings if minor networks and independents are more accurately measured.

Don’t Count Us Out, an allegedly independent grassroots campaign, claims that local people meters undercount African American and Hispanic viewers, citing reduced viewing figures on channels previously measured as popular. Nielsen counters that the decline reflects more accurate measurement: African American and Hispanic viewers are watching less broadcast TV and more cable TV.

Business Week provides a good summary of the case. It also discusses News Corporation’s support of Don’t Count Us Out: “financially, organisationally, and morally”, say News Corp. More than just that, according to Nielsen: Don’t Count Us Out was created by News Corporation.

So, why do all the shows end in May? Melinda was right: it is just the way it’s always been. And, apparently, the way the big networks would like it to stay.