It’s Time To Say Goodbye To Ratings Sweeps

Patrick Paolini, VP-GM of Fox’s WTTG-WDCA Washington, says it's time for the TV business to “admit that a ‘win’ in metered  markets four times a year is meaningless — and that the focus on the four monthly sweeps is actually harmful to our business.”

Confession is good for the soul, so here goes: I pay close attention to the station’s ratings.

There, I said it.

I like to win.

And while we’re confessing, can we all please admit that a “win” in metered (LPM) markets four times a year is meaningless — and that the focus on the four monthly sweeps is actually harmful to our business?

We’ve all known this for years, and it’s truer today than ever. If we’re looking at our business honestly, we know our viewers rely on us 365 days a year, not just the 112 that make up the major sweep months.

Here are my top five reasons I believe we should kill the four sweeps, before they kill us:


  1. If your news is in the can, it’s probably expired. News by definition should be relevant and timely content. If we are producing a piece that will run in 20 days, is it even news anymore? Why would a station spend an inordinate amount of time creating and promoting “sweep” pieces that are positioned as “critical” or “urgent” but held for a “sweeps month” three months later? If information is that critical, let’s hear it. To do otherwise is journalistic malpractice — and bad business. Consumers want news and information now — on their timetable, not ours. And they have plenty of options.
  2. Advertisers know the score. LPM markets have daily quarter-hour ratings 52 weeks per year. The advertising community doesn’t spend money based on how you did two months ago. Tell me about yesterday, since my ad is running tomorrow. Some news directors and general managers continue to focus on the ratings four months a year because it’s always been done that way, and they can get a headline in the local paper. (Which, sadly, is not what it used to be). News breaks every day. Ratings are no different.
  3. Wes Mantooth was right about Nielsen. We laughed when the Vince Vaughn character in Anchorman blamed Nielsen for being “No. 2.” Sour grapes, right? But all broadcasters — even No. 1s — admit they’ve lost confidence in Nielsen’s data. There have been countless discussions about the inaccuracy of their current sample sizes and methodology. But stations around the country still buy the numbers and use them for bragging rights in Feb, May, July and November.

    Today, stations have numerous research tools at their disposal: engagement software, feedback on social media, the “eye” test, etc. With all these tools that give us immediate feedback, why are we allowing a survey company — one that’s slow to respond to our new reality — to define our success?

  4. Hyperventilation makes people dizzy. Solid promotion is key to our success, and sweeps periods take our eye off the ball. Viewers know when they’re being played, and when it comes to promoting “sweep” pieces, the hysteria and ridiculousness rise to an entirely new level. “Here are just a few promotional headlines from real sweep stories from recent months. “Is your house spying on you?” “Children Legally Stolen,” “Is Airline Air Toxic?” “What age is too old to drive?” and “Diabetes Cure tonight at 11 pm.” Local news is better than this.

    Many of these headlines and the promotional spots that accompany them are recycled tactics that are decades old. These promos are myopic, promote fear and create a sense of urgency for the story, yet it’s held for next Tuesday? Stations should be promoting timely, relevant news in a way that engages the consumer.

  5. Story selection is the news. It’s that easy. The process of setting up a “sweeps” calendar for stories months in advance, well before they have any relevance, cannot continue. If we want to survive and thrive, local news stations need to be focused on what’s happening now, up-to-the-minute news and information that people are engaging with and searching for. They want this information all day, every day, on every platform. They certainly don’t care about whatever nostalgia we have for those four months.

Stunting for the four sweep periods is dead. Call the coroner. Write the obit.

Consider this mine.

Or …

With any luck, I just did.

Patrick Paolini is the vice president and general manager of Fox’s Washington duopoly of WTTG (Fox) and WDCA (MNT). Earlier in his career, he was SVP for Fox Stations Sales and VP-GM of Fox’s WTXF Philadelphia. Paolini has held various sales roles within FTS over the last 17 years at the Fox O&Os in New York, Tampa and Washington. He serves as chairman of the board of trustees for The National Capital Area Chapter of The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and is an avid runner.

Comments (11)

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Thomas Hubler says:

May 15, 2017 at 8:27 am

Amen! Well said Patrick. Tho you’ll probably hurt some feelings here..

Snead Hearn says:

May 15, 2017 at 9:36 am

Sweep pieces are always the fall back for the corporate vp of news. The four sweeps and the methodology are just another part of the business plan that is outdated and needs to change. Good luck on making a long overdue change.

Patrick Burns says:

May 15, 2017 at 9:42 am

Well said but change is resisted , ask any sociologist !!!

Cheryl Thorne says:

May 15, 2017 at 11:23 am

Results is what matters to clients and they are seeing less of to every day from traditional media which local and network TV is..As far as ratings and their significance..Patrick I would say have this conversation with your network people ..They have not received the message yet..The same for your national spot jockies …and they do a lot of revenue from the ratings..In fact in my career Fox has been the worst about putting significance in ratings..The networks including Fox started all this just live with it and move on!! You will not change this in your broadcast lifetime…

Cheryl Thorne says:

May 15, 2017 at 11:24 am

I meant seeing “less of it everyday from traditional ratings”

Patrick Burns says:

May 15, 2017 at 12:09 pm

The NYC & LA biz may not change but main street USA is not buying the under 2 ratings. We have a local car dealer here who buys cable 52 wks a year & ONLY select Network 2 times a year. The retail driven buyers know all about Netflix, Roku & Amazon. A 1.2 in a sit com is still a 1.2 and buyers want cost efficiency & real SOLID frequency . If your buy does not deliver a 5 ,6,7,8 frequency then you are probably paying too much for the low rated shows.

Buyers habits change like the glaciers for sure !!!

Teri Keene says:

May 15, 2017 at 3:59 pm

Excellent piece.

Gregg Palermo says:

May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

Nielsen is right when they say we win and wrong when they say we’re second. Sounds like blaming the ref.

Joe Jaime says:

May 16, 2017 at 6:07 pm

Could not agree more… good newscasts everyday wins viewers and sweeps

Christian Terry says:

May 23, 2017 at 6:29 pm

Agreed. 100%

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