Wednesday, July 1, 2009


The July TV Sweeps

The July sweeps (July 2-29) are seen by many as meaningless. With Daylight Saving Time, sun worshipers are still by the pool or at the lake when the early newscasts come on. Those loyal viewers may be away from their TVs on vacation. I used to call it “the stupid sweeps”. Frank Volpicella, KVUE TV (ABC) news director seems to see the July sweeps the same way.

“Sweeps? Huh?” responded Volpicella when I asked him for his thoughts about the July sweeps. “July? What? HUT (Households Using TV) levels are too low, for anyone to make a prediction about July. I can’t. It’s summer and people are enjoying the season. Why July anyway?” KVUE TV dominated the ratings in May.

Why July? Well, it’s because it’s always been that way. The industry always has sweeps or official ratings four times a year in February (except this year because of the original DTV switch date), May, July, and November. Always. Nowadays, the months that really matter are November and February, but we still have May and July anyway.

No station puts much stock in July, but one could argue that this July is a little different. It is the first sweeps month since the transition to digital TV (DTV). That doesn’t wash with Suzanne Black, KEYE (CBS) news director. “Transition or no transition, we all know viewer patterns are off in the summer. We’ll continue to put on the best news we can for those viewers who are watching,” Black said. KEYE switched to digital in February.

It was thought that for the first time, all Austin stations would be on a level playing field. For decades, KTBC (Fox) had the upper hand with the strongest signal broadcasting on Channel 7 in the Very High Frequency spectrum (VHF) while all of the other stations in the market were in the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) spectrum. It took a much more powerful transmitter to push a UHF signal. KXAN TV (NBC) has numerous low power stations to supply cable systems in Central Texas plus full-power sister station KXAM TV in Llano to make up the difference.

“The digital transition was a historic milestone, but it doesn’t change our approach or our commitment,” said KXAN in a prepared statement. “The Austin News brand is focused on providing the most relevant local news and weather content to our viewers/users.”

The tables are turned on KTBC now, however. KTBC and other Austin stations joined KEYE in broadcasting digitally June 12, but KTBC is using a temporary transmitter close to the ground.

“With the analog signals now off, we have heard from some viewers who can't see us,” says the KTBC TV Fox 7 web site. “During the short term we're currently running on reduced power while we upgrade to a new digital antenna, but long term we plan on installing our new digital antenna that will better serve our viewers with a stronger digital signal.”

A KTBC TV Fox 7 spokesperson says the station will be at full power soon, but they won’t make it in time for the start of sweeps. “We expect to have the work completed by the end of next week (around July 10), and well be up and running,” she says. There is one possible issue for KTBC viewers who don’t buy cable service. “KTBC’s new digital signal is VHF,” their web site says. “If you have an indoor antenna that has ‘rabbit ears’, it’s probably VHF. Some compact indoor digital antennas are UHF only, and won’t get our signal. So please check your antenna specifications.”

It is true that since Austin is one of the most cabled cities in the country, KTBC’s antenna issues may not make any difference to many viewers. The ones who care are those who live out in the country using antennas and DTV boxes for reception.

Bottom line: The TV playing field is still not level.

Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

Since it's such a cabled market, I've often wondered why TimeWarner didn't put out numbers on who's watching what... they are bound to know since there has to be some way for them and the networks they broadcast, to determine who's watching what... probably far more difficult on analog but digital cable should provide them with minute by minute viewer data.

Anonymous said...

I would make one small correction: the important sweeps months are May and November, instead of February as mentioned in the blog post. May as I've always know it is the biggest ratings period of all, which sells the winter/Christmas season.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: I'll stand by November and February as the most important sweeps months, especially since Daylight Saving Time is earlier. Further, in Austin, UT students are gone most of the month. Besides, with overnights, sweeps mean less and less nowadays. As I used to say, every day is sweeps, and every day is contest day. Jim

Anonymous said...

I'll take part of your comment. But here's a quote from USA Today:

"I don't think the March sweep mattered," says Fox program planning chief Preston Beckman. "May is still the most important sweeps period of the whole year." But "we never schedule for sweeps anymore," Beckman says, relying instead on regular series but largely avoiding repeats."

So, I agree that sweeps should be all the time, especially now with the internet and 24 hour journalism. But traditionally, May has always been the biggest selling sweeps of the year. I suspect that May will still hold up to be the biggest month for TV news for a while to come.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: The USA Today quote notwithstanding, this May in particular may be a poor indicator. I should have mentioned the economy first and foremost in my earlier responses and even in the blog post itself. I don't believe that six-month old data will be of much help or relevance when media buyers try to plan for end-of-the-year placement of ads. I just finished reading of predicted economic benchmarks blasted by statistics.

On other anomoly carries over from last February. Some stations had made the DTV switch and others had not. Now that the DTV conversion is "complete" there is still fall out since the footprint of the new signals is often different. This will eventually sort itself out.

I believe, however, the economy of media and new media is redefining sweeps. The use of the word "traditionally" with regard to May's importance is indicative of the old model, the way things were. I think most would agree that July is the lest respresentative of a station's strength and reach, and now May is the second least representative. Jim

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