It's the start of another television sweeps period when local news stations reveal their more sensational side with reports on "Exploding Cell Phones!" "Deadly Drains!" "Violent Girls!" and "Cabbie Come-Ons!" as well as their more in-depth and polished reports.
But a new method of measuring the way Washingtonians watch television may mean the end of the four-times-a-year sweeps fever, sparing viewers these sometimes over-the-top dinnertime reports. Then again, we might be getting those stories year-round.
A new television monitoring system known as Local People Meters hits town next month and promises to deliver a more accurate snapshot of viewer habits that will be delivered to stations -- and the advertisers who pay their bills -- overnight. For the local stations, that means no more waiting for sweeps months to air their more appealing stuff in an effort to win ratings.
"The times, they are a-changing," said Nielsen Media Research spokesman Jack Loftus, whose company has been rolling out LPMs to a random sampling of homes in big-city markets since 2002. On June 2, Washington will be hooked up, following in the footsteps of Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Philadelphia will get LPMs next month. Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta will be wired by the end of 2006.
For years station executives and the buyers and sellers of television time have been clamoring for more complete and immediate data about who, exactly, is watching what. With LPMs, "Nielsen is about to give them their most devout wish and possibly their worst nightmare," Loftus said.
Currently, stations here set their advertising rates during the sweeps months of February, May, July and November. That's when diaries are mailed to randomly selected families who then indicate what and when they're watching. Although stations now have daily access to the number of households watching their programs based on older meters in 400 homes, the new LPMs will gauge specific demographic information that's crucial to woo advertisers.
Nearly $700 million was spent on local TV advertising for the Washington market in 2004, according to Nielsen. Accordingly, the stations run with what they deem as their best reports, sometimes in the works for months, during this time. Meanwhile, the major networks roll out their special programming, such as CBS's "Elvis" miniseries and an ABC biopic on Donald Trump, both airing in May, to make their affiliated stations happy.
On June 2, Nielsen will switch on the LPMs being wired in 600 Washington homes; there are about 2.2 million television households in the Washington area. Here's how LPMs work: A meter sits atop every television in a Nielsen household and each member of the family is assigned a number. When a person wants to watch TV, he presses his number on a special remote. (If other family members tune in at the same time, they enter their numbers.) The meter tallies which show is being watched, and that information is sent to Nielsen, which forwards the data to its clients the next day.
"Now [station executives] are going to get a ton of data every morning," Loftus said. "They'll know how many women 18 to 34 or how many adults 25 to 54 . . . watched my news or my program last night. They don't have to wait for sweeps."
The LPMs are not without their critics. News Corp., owner of the Fox television network and a number of local stations including WTTG and WDCA, has complained that the new method has undercounted minority viewers in cities.
"Nielsen is not investing properly in people on the ground to go out in minority communities and make sure that viewers are comfortable with the technology, [that] they understand it and how to implement it," says Josh Lahey, a spokesman for Don't Count Us Out. The group is funded by News Corp.
Washington news chiefs are hunkering down for the new system and have begun grappling with the daunting notion that every day is sweeps day. "You need to get people aware of you every single day," Bill Lord, WJLA vice president of news, said about the new ratings system. "Their behavior is going to be recorded," he said, so the ratings won't be based on what a viewer thought he watched last week via a diary.
"There will be more pressure to consistently be good," said Darryll Green, WUSA president and general manager. "We have to be good every single day."
WJLA has been broadcasting stories usually reserved for sweeps almost every day for the past year in anticipation of the new ratings system. "We planned well in advance for this . . . so that we would be in a rotation of having a sweeps mentality, for lack of a better term, year-round," Lord said.