A revolution is coming to Philadelphia television, and it could mean this month is your last chance to watch local TV news stations set up a pedophile trap in your neighborhood (as NBC 10 did in March 2004), send a meteorologist to the set of Desperate Housewives (as 6 ABC did last fall), or show former Philly reporter Sharon Reed’s blurred, exposed breasts (CBS 3, last fall). Sweeps — the four-times-per-year periods used to track detailed TV ratings and set advertising rates — a re about to end, along with the “stunt news” stories that come with them.
Or so goes the theory, as a new ratings measurement system takes effect next month. Nielsen, the company that tracks who’s watching what, is installing 800 “local people meters,” or LPMs, in televisions across the Philadelphia area, to replace the antiquated written diary system used for decades. LPMs record subjects’ viewing habits and demographics electronically, with Nielsen making the results, diced into every conceivable demographic category, available to local stations daily. “Now [advertisers] won’t have to wait for sweeps,” says Joan Erle, research director for NBC 10, which eked out a second-place finish in February’s ratings. “In a couple years, the viewers won’t even know there is a sweep.” Bigwigs at the three major stations in town all sound like they’ve been drinking from the usual Kool-Aid, saying LPMs can only be “good for the viewer.”
But some observers — like Bernie Shimkus, of Bala Cynwyd’s Harmelin Media — see this as the start of a new era in which stations are even more dependent on statistics, and struggling newscasts feel more pressure. “We haven’t had demos in such frequency,” he says, noting that in the past, stations would get a few months between sweeps to show improvement. “Now the feedback is so frequent, they may not have that luxury. It could make stations slaves to the numbers.”
As for whether LPMs will end the silly stunts, evidence suggests otherwise. Of the five markets where they’ve already taken over, only one — Boston — reports a decrease in sensationalist news reports. In fact, some predict that stunt news stories could become the norm year-round, as stations chase higher ratings every day. NBC 10 news director Chris Blackman says, “I’m hoping that on any night, there’s stories that would have worked in sweeps. I’ve always thought we should be in sweeps 365 days a year.” When asked about that LPM doomsday scenario, Temple University communications prof Norm Felsenthal laughs: “I don’t know that they can do that crap every week.”