Great. No sooner did I finish my self-help tome for Tvphanatique Press, "How to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Sweeps," than numbers-crunching Nielsen Media Research announces that it's taken the first step toward abolishing the periodic derbies in which TV stations take a break from reruns to air expensive movies and cheap game shows that will inflate their ratings, which they then use to set ad rates for the next round of reruns.
Nielsen said that sometime next year it will start using its people-meter technology for local TV measurement in Boston, the nation's No. 6 TV market. If all goes well there, Nielsen said, it's prepared to install people meters in nine more markets during the next three years.
The advantage of people meters is that they provide continuous demographic measurement--and almost all ad sales these days are on the basis of a show's demo performance. Though the technology was introduced way back in 1987, Nielsen is using people meters only to measure national audiences for broadcast networks, cable networks and syndicated shows. They have not been used to collect local market information. For local stats, Nielsen is using the really old-fashioned set-tuning meters; those are fine for logging what's on in a home but not who is watching. To get local demographic information, Nielsen reaches back into the Stone Age of technology and pulls out those paper diaries that it asks family members in Nielsen homes to fill out during four sweep months each year. The diaries are tabulated to produce the sweep ratings books, including demographic information, which are used by local stations to set their ad rates. How quaint.
Network suits are pleased by the company's baby step forward, but they're not breaking out champagne.
People meters are, after all, a dated technology, and by the time Nielsen installs them for local measurement in any meaningful way, we'll be well into the digital world and they'll be completely out of date, the suits note.
"The people meter was designed for [a time] when there were one or two TVs in a home and people watched TV together, so if you did not punch in, someone else did," said NBC research guru Alan Wurtzel. Now, he said, kids watch in their rooms, parents in another, and if the teenage son does not want to punch into the people meter, he's not going to do it, even though the family may have agreed to participate.
"We're very concerned about our ability going forward to measure audiences in a digital world and with so much more personal viewing," he said.
For people whose attention spans can't take a 30-minute comedy--that would be guys with remote controls--UPN network is looking to cut that time in half.
A UPN rep--male--said the network, which targets teenage guys and young men, has ordered the development of a handful of 15-minute slapstick comedies, in the tradition of the "Three Stooges" short, in an effort to appeal to those guy viewers, who are just the worst when it comes to grazing with the remote control.
"This is just a way to see if we can come up with something in a nontraditional format that will interest that audience," he told the Associated Press.
Covering the broadcast television networks is a little like covering a United Nations assembly without those helpful little headphones. Everyone is speaking a different language; it can be tough to figure out what's actually going on.
Just yesterday, for example, two statements were sent to The TV Column from different networks. The first, from CBS, declared that "Late Show With David Letterman" had finished the November sweeps in its closest competitive finish relative to NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" since November '96.
The second, from NBC, announced that "Late Show With David Letterman" had finished the November sweeps in its worst competitive finish to NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"--ever.
Turns out, CBS's statement was written in Everyonese. Seems that Letterman averaged 4.1 million total viewers during the month-long derby, which is up 16 percent compared with last year, while Leno's show was flat with 6 million viewers and Letterman was the closest he's been to Leno in a November sweep since '96.
Yup, after five years of bad news, things are starting to look brighter again for the Gap-Toothed One.
Before his recent upswing, Letterman had lost more than half of his audience since 1994, when he used to thrash Leno nightly. But CBS's improved prime-time fortunes at 10 p.m., with new shows like "Family Law" and "Judging Amy," have more viewers sticking around to watch Letterman on the network.
On the other hand, CBS's 10 p.m. shows tend to skew oldish.
And, over at NBC, the official language these days is Youthish. So, what NBC was trying to communicate in its statement was that Leno scored his biggest November sweep margin of victory ever compared with Letterman--53 percent--among adults 18-49.
This means that Letterman's new viewers don't appear to come at the expense of Leno's audience. It helps if you translate into English, with all those pesky little qualifiers added.
Kate Snow has been named general assignment reporter at CNN, operating out of the news network's Washington bureau and reporting to bureau chief Frank Sesno.
Snow has been weekend anchor for CNN Headline News and national correspondent for CNN Newssource, the company's syndicated news service, which has more than 600 affiliates nationwide. She reported from Albania and Macedonia during the Kosovo conflict.
Before rejoining CNN, Snow was an anchor for KOAT-TV in Albuquerque. From '93 to '95, she was a producer for CNN.
CAPTION: How's David Letterman, left, doing in the ratings against rival late-night host Jay Leno? Great, says CBS. Lousy, says NBC.