On Friday, April 7, the New York Times crossword puzzle offered this clue for a six-letter answer: “When people meters are used.” I am embarrassed to admit it was my wife who solved it for me: sweeps.
I have three reactions to this clue:
Are People Meters really so well-known for delivering TV ratings that they can be used in a general-interest crossword puzzle, even on a Friday?
Not to get too nerdy, but People Meters are not used for sweeps. “Sweeps” are used to measure local markets that don’t have year-round measurement, so local markets with People Meters by definition don’t have sweeps. Paper diaries produce sweeps in non-People Meter markets. No wonder I didn’t get it! I was overthinking it.
Huh. Sweeps. I haven’t thought about sweeps in years.
There was a time when TV was obsessed with sweeps. The networks would cram all their best programming into the four sweeps periods of November, February, May and July, because the ratings for these months would set advertising rates for local TV stations for the rest of the year. If you had a character who was going to be killed, married or born, you’d do it during sweeps.
Not anymore. Sweeps ceased to be a major factor a dozen years ago, when Nielsen implemented Local People Meters in the largest local markets. And when Nielsen finally phases out diaries next year, sweeps as we have known them for decades will essentially cease to exist.
The clearest indication of the anachronism of sweeps is all the good programing now being aired in April, which is not a sweeps month. I would go so far as to argue that the week of April 16-23, definitely not a sweeps period, was the best single week for scripted television in years. Consider the shows running last week: “Girls,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers,” “Silicon Valley,” “Billions,” “Better Call Saul,” “Dr. Who,” “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Archer.” My DVR is about to explode.
None of those series are affected by sweeps since they are on cable, but even the networks are serving up a cornucopia of new quality programming this month: “Modern Family,” “blackish,” “New Girl,” “Saturday Night Live.” NBC is debuting its new Tina Fey show “Great News” later in the month.
And of course April has seen the return of the baseball season, the launch of the NBA and NHL playoffs, and the Masters. That’s a lot of TV to watch considering that spring is here and those of us in northern climates are starting to enjoy longer, warmer days.
It’s not just a coincidence involving production schedules that so much great television is airing in April. TV’s evolving business model and its award schedule are also responsible.
Until pretty recently, the average TV season comprised 22-26 episodes, and the big money came when the series had accumulated about 100 episodes that could be sold for syndication. So the traditional TV season would kick off in September and end in May, with the episodes essentially spanning those nine months.
A lot of network shows still aim for 22-week seasons, but not all. Season one of NBC’s “The Good Place” was only 13 episodes and seems destined for Netflix instead of syndication. And 13-episode seasons are the norm on cable, although “Girls” and “Veep” have only 10. When you have 10- or 13-episode season,s you might as well concentrate them in the fall or spring instead of stretching them through the year. If by the end of the series you only have 40 or 50 episodes, you can sell it to Netflix or Amazon, which need the content.
Then there’s the impact of the Emmys. To qualify for an Emmy, at least half a season’s episodes need to run by May 31, so April becomes to TV what December is for the movies: the launching pad for award contenders. Presumably the thinking is that Emmy voters are more likely to remember prestige shows that recently aired than ones that ran last fall.
So what we really have now are two seasons of TV: the Money Season, filled with highly rated procedurals, football, primet-ime soap operas, awards shows, reality shows and other programs that pay the bills; and the Prestige Season, with critically acclaimed but low-rated “quality” television that bring honor and acclaim to a network.
I guess I shouldn’t complain. But after months of desperately searching for something interesting to watch, I am now overwhelmed by the bounty of great shows. I’ll probably still be catching up in July.