Mention the word ’sweeps’ to TV news professionals and you can visibly see their stress level rise.
Mention the word ’sweeps’ to TV news professionals and you can
visibly see their stress level rise.
Sweeps is the popular term for the periods when the Nielsen ratings for
local and national programming are used to determine stations’ ad rates
for the following three to six months.
The three major sweeps periods are November, February and May. July is
also technically a sweeps month, but it’s much less important,
especially on the national side.
While there are only about 5,000 homes nationwide that determine the
Nielsen ratings, what they view during those months can make or break
careers, so news programs tend to pull out all the stops to lure
Much of this is accomplished by sending out reporters to generate
sizzling local content. That makes it all the more difficult for PR
professionals to get their clients’ video news releases aired during
Which is not to say that it’s impossible. While news directors will tell
you they evaluate each story on its own merits, they do feel added
pressure to use only the most eye-stunning visuals during sweeps. Asked
what type of VNRs she looks for during those times, Elaine Bennett, the
five o’clock news producer for KDFW in Dallas, says, ’A little jazzier
and a little sexier. That always helps.’
During a sweeps period last year, normally staid Prudential Insurance
realized this and worked with DS Simon Productions to develop a VNR on
’Faking Your Own Death,’ which aired on WNBC-TV in New York. Prudential
also helped WNBC track down and interview a local person who had faked
his death to collect on the life insurance. The piece delivered the
message that Prudential was on the lookout for scams that could drive up
For many local stations, sweeps is the time when they look to
distinguish themselves from their competition by doing local stories, so
stress any and all local hooks to your VNR. ’During the ratings periods
we spend a lot of time focusing on things of local interest,’ says
Gordon Collier, anchor of the 6 pm and 10 pm Channel 10 news in Waco,
Steve Gold, president of VNR maker TVN, says it’s important to reach out
to the news stations early for sweeps stories, giving them ample time to
prepare whatever local content they need to add to the VNR. ’August and
September is a good time to pitch beat reporters for technology and
health pieces for the November sweeps,’ he says.
But it’s also important not to get too discouraged if a station shows no
early interest and to keep pitching stations all the way through a
sweeps month. ’Toward the end of sweeps, a station may dip a little bit
or get more heat from their competition,’ says DF Simon media relations
manager Kenneth Meyer. ’You may see a change in the way they do news as
a result, and the station that hasn’t been using VNRs may change their
mind and begin calling you.’
Sometimes it takes more than a VNR to cut through the sweeps
Patrick Pharris, CEO of Electronic Media Communications (EMC), says, ’If
you’re going to launch a hot new product for the holidays during the
November sweeps, don’t just do a VNR; create an event somewhere. Recruit
the media to cover that event, because you just more than doubled your
opportunity for coverage.’
Pharris says one way local stations distinguish themselves during sweeps
is with remotes - the more exotic the better. Providing them with that
chance can enhance your prospects for coverage. For years, EMC worked
with Princess Cruises on a Love Boat National Holiday promotion during
February, inviting reporters from up to 20 cities to spend a week
sailing the Caribbean. ’We provided the camera crew and the editing
equipment so the anchor or the weather person could do live reports from
the ship, as well as collect stories on the cruise industry to air
later,’ Pharris says. EMC also had people renew their wedding vows on
board as the hook for a separate Valentine’s Day story.
Of course, not all VNRs are suited for sweeps; some companies may not
feel comfortable during the times of the year that even news directors
will admit tend toward the sensational. ’If you have a client that
doesn’t want to be the story after the talking gorilla, you may want to
tell him to reconsider for another time,’ says Meyer.
Gold suggests sending out two different VNRs of the same story; one
time-sensitive for sweeps and the other designed to be more of an
Once sweeps is over, you can get back in touch with the station so the
evergreen piece can get aired later, he says.
Gold says in general it’s the human-interest factor and not the category
that ultimately determines whether a VNR airs during sweeps. ’If you
have a lightweight story with little human interest, it doesn’t matter
what category it is,’ he says. ’It has very little chance of getting
Michael Hill, president of VNR producer News Broadcast Network, says PR
pros must remember that sweeps are the times when news stations, not
agencies, keep score. ’The audiences aren’t particularly larger during
the sweeps period,’ he notes.
Sylvia Barnard, managing account executive for Ketchum’s Atlanta office,
echoes that sentiment, saying agencies should not let sweeps impact
their approach or their VNR content. ’You should make sure your VNR is
newsworthy to the news director and you’ll get play, sweeps month or no
sweeps month,’ she says.
DOS AND DON’TS
1 Pitch VNRs for sweeps periods early.
2 Think locally. During sweeps, stations distinguish themselves with
3 Include extra video that can be used for a news teaser.
4 Look to add a press event - even if it’s a single-city press
conference - to your VNR to enhance your chance of coverage.
5 Offer reporters the chance to do remotes - the more exotic or
interesting the better.
1 Push all clients into doing VNRs to air during sweeps. Some campaigns
and coverage are suited for the sensationalistic tone that many stations
adopt during sweeps.
2 Get discouraged if a station doesn’t take your VNR early. Many times
early ratings results may cause them to take another look at a VNR
toward the end of the sweeps month.
3 Change your VNR content too much to get aired during sweeps. Remember
sweeps are when TV stations, not agencies, are judged.