NEW ORLEANS — Ratings sweeps periods took another bashing at an advertising industry-sponsored NATPE panel Tuesday, but the usually intractable dialogue among networks, ad buyers and Nielsen took baby steps toward a solution.

The panel, co-sponsored by the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies, had the usual industry execs taking turns jabbing at the folly of stunt-filled sweeps periods, whose ratings spikes are routinely discounted by the very buyers they’re intended to influence.

With 250 stations now running some kind of watch-and-win contests during sweeps months, up from 150 a year ago, ”We throw the books out,” said Jean Pool, exec VP at J. Walter Thompson Co.

”We can’t reward stations in a market for a stunt that’s not going to be there when your campaign runs,” Pool continued.

And with network programming designed to boost those stations, ”it’s an embarrassment to the advertising industry and the broadcast industry,” said David Poltrack, exec VP of planning and research for CBS.

Poltrack figures that bunching movies on sweeps Sundays costs the networks $10 million in lost ad revenue, while bunching repeats in non-sweeps periods loses viewers that translate to another $100 million in lost ad buys.

”All of our best product cannibalizes itself,” Poltrack said.

Ultimately, ”If the networks are concerned about using up all the best programming, one or all of them have to step up to the plate and say, ‘We’re not going to do this,’ ” countered Marianne Ham, senior manager for global advertising at Campbell Soup Co.

But ultimately, the issue is who’s going to foot the bill for a sweeps-less yearlong ratings system on a local basis. Nielsen prexy John Dimling suggested the ratings service is now more willing to address funding the investment needed to expand ratings periods.

The issues, Dimling pointed out, are sample size, the length of a new measurement period and how frequently to report the data. ”This is not a new idea, but the climate has changed,” Dimling said.

Networks are asking advertisers, the ultimate users of the data, to help pay for broader measurement on a local level, but many have resisted.

”We got into the sweeps business because of the affordability of research,” said Ave Butensky, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising. ”But if the advertiser, agency and station says I need to know, we can figure out a way to pay for it on a more agreeable basis.”

But there’s another issue at work that may continue to skew ratings in certain months.

Although producers merely live by the system, execs said they’ve grown dependent on an ebb and flow of sweeps-dictated program cycles.

”The problem with the programming community is, with talent spread so thin, you can’t make every episode a sweeps episode,” said David Mumford, exec VP of planning and operations at Columbia TriStar Television Distribution. ”If you flatline the year, do you flatline the creative process? We have to keep pushing people to get the best creative product,” and even artificial sweeps months get writers to focus on that.

But advertisers weren’t cheered by that notion, since their own buying needs don’t always coincide with November, February and May.

”I have a product I’m introducing in January, and I’m not getting the (best) product, but I’m still paying,” said Ham.

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