Network Sweeps: Caveat Emptor

CBS won the network's ratings race this season with an average 12.6 million viewers, and NBC narrowly edged out Fox in the coveted 18-49 demographic, 4.5 to 4.3. The recently completed Sweeps process is meant to accurately measure program viewership, but the networks have learned to manipulate their ratings in pursuit of short-term results.

This behavior is not unlike how companies attempt to manipulate earnings in the financial markets. Investors expect management to build real long-term value, but powerful incentives exist to "play the market" for short-term results. Just as companies manipulate earnings to improve short-term share prices, the networks manipulate their programming to increase quarterly ratings.

This is not surprising, as public companies are under pressure from their shareholders to increase market value. They want the highest share price so investors pay top dollar. The networks are under similar pressure to improve their ratings. They want the largest share of the viewing audience so advertisers will pay top dollar.



News throughout the last few years has been filled with stories about companies inflating their earnings to demonstrate short-term performance. Similarly, the networks' behavior demonstrates they are often less concerned about long-term health than short-term numbers.

For example, Fox recruited Whitney Houston to make a special guest appearance on "Boston Public" and brought Monica Lewinsky back to the nation's consciousness via "Mr. Personality." ABC trumpeted its "50th Anniversary Celebration" featuring cast reunions from the likes of "Happy Days" and "The Love Boat." NBC "supersized" two of its top programs "Friends" and "Will & Grace." By lengthening each to 40 minutes the network dissuaded viewers from tuning in to the middle of a competitor's program.

CBS also made a strategic move by airing repeats of "CSI" and "CSI Miami" on Fridays. Not only have these programs outperformed the program they pre-empted by 40%, but they attract a younger audience. This helped CBS' performance among adults 18-49, as well as in the overall ratings race. Other sweeps tactics included reunion shows, sensationalized news stories and ever more inventive reality programs (do we really need "The First Annual Miss Dog Beauty Pageant"?).

All of these tactics distort the true measure of the networks' audiences and can suggest increases in viewership that are not likely to hold-up throughout the year. This ultimately leads local and regional advertisers to pay a premium. Without an understanding of the ramifications of the networks' behavior, unsophisticated media buyers all too often overvalue the size of the audience.

The sophisticated media buyer, however, is not fooled by the "stunting" in programming. Like wise stockbrokers, wise media brokers look at more than the quarterly results before making the buy. They evaluate historical trends, compare competitive programming, and analyze qualitative audience composition.

They also look to the power of new technologies. Advanced consumer electronics now have the ability to track viewership 365 days a year. Digital systems like TiVo and iTV can determine what advertisement is being watched, by whom, and for what amount of time. For instance, TiVo reported in almost real-time that Reebok's "Terry Tate Office Linebacker" commercial was the most watched advertisement in TiVo households during the Super Bowl.

As products like these increasingly make their way into American homes, sweeps may become obsolete. The networks will be challenged to put their best programming forward throughout the year, and they'll have a much more difficult time inflating their ratings. In the meantime, however, the old saying still applies: caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware.

Pat Wallwork is the media director and partner for McKee Wallwork Henderson, one of the nation's fastest growing advertising agencies.

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