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FROM THIS EPISODE

I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

In 1987, the weatherman at WLS-channel 7 Chicago did a hard-hitting piece about windy city residents who had been abducted by aliens. He also managed to get work in a plug-in for the alien abduction special he was hosting the following night.

You might ask, what caused all this extra interest in extraterrestrials? A new report by the Department of Defense?

No, it was sweeps, that wonderful quarterly event when local TV audience is measured and local TV advertising rates are set. To boost ratings – and ad rates – the networks produced high-profile mini-series and sensational specials, and the syndicated shows and local stations made a dash for the lowest common denominator.

But where have all those wacky sweeps stunts gone? Remember when Geraldo got his nose broken by Nazi skinheads? Remember A Current Affair, Confessions of a Cannibal or Playboy Playmates of the 1980’s vs Playboy Playmates of the 1990’s on Family Feud?

Sweeps just ain’t what they used to be. But then again television ain’t what it used to be. The networks no longer produce splashy sweeps programming. The network flacks no longer send out press releases celebrating their ratings victories or spinning their defeats after sweeps.

That’s because hand-written viewer diaries have been replaced with passive set top boxes – at least in the biggest 56 markets. These ever-vigilant boxes deliver ratings all year, not just four times a year, and they do it more accurately than written diaries for obvious reasons.

Nevertheless, sweeps – and viewer diaries – endure in the smaller markets. So “shark week” is still a fixture four times a year in Bloomington and Bismarck. That’s partially because those set-top boxes cost money, and smaller market stations don’t want to pay for them. But, it’s also because passive audience measurement is more accurate. And that’s bound to result in lower audience numbers…especially in our digital age.

Did you watch 30 Rock? Oh yeah, it was hysterical. But did you watch it on your local station when it aired on Thursday? Or later, off your DVR? Or on-line on Hulu?

Set top boxes only give credit where credit is due. And that’s especially true in the in 21 markets with “people meters,” which are boxes that measure not only what is being viewed on the set, but also exactly which members of the household are watching.

So local stations will stay with diaries for the time being, thank you very much. But they’ll no longer get a boost from big network events. They’re just too expensive to produce, and in the age of the internet and the video game and everything else, there’s no guarantee they’ll get the ratings to justify them on the network level. So these days, a fresh episode of a popular series, and occasional stunt casting like a sports illustrated swimsuit model, is about the best the nets have to offer their affiliates during sweeps.

But, if you live in a smaller market, fear not. Sweeps will return to a TV near you every February, May, July and November the foreseeable future. Pygmy Alien Lesbian Autopsy anyone?

A footnote: why am I writing about this now? Well, Nielsen thought the planned transition to digital TV would disrupt the ratings process, so they moved this February’s sweeps to March. With the transition now slated for June, we should have all made the digital upgrade in time for July sweeps. Pygmy Alien Lesbian Autopsy in digital-HD anyone?

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusinessBrief@KCRW.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief.

For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.

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