You might think February, May and November are simply three months of the year. But in the world of television, they’re known as “sweeps months.” The ratings that TV shows and newscasts receive during these periods determine their advertising rates. 

So it’s not surprising that local television stations and networks pull out all the stops during these months to get as many eyeballs as possible. That’s why your favorite show went on “hiatus” at the end of November, but makes a miraculous return in February. It’s also why the summer is filled with reality show junk and rebooted game shows from the 1960s, and why your local or network news station brings you more “exclusives,” “special reports,” and “five-part series” during sweeps months. 

Before Covid, it was trendy to promote fear to gain ratings, especially among germophobes. If it could kill you, it was a sweeps story. Even if you had better odds of being hit by a meteor, there was always some everyday item out there, lurking, waiting to strike. “Coming up on I-Missed-It-News,” the TV announcer would say, “the unseen killer in the supermarket: shopping cart handles!” This popular one usually featured a reporter running a swab over a handle, taking it to a lab, and then wearing a shocked look at the results. “Oh, my! Look at those germs! Your dog’s mouth is actually cleaner than a shopping cart handle!” These kinds of stories resulted in wet wipes stationed near the entrance of any store with shopping carts. 

News consultants soon gave us a list of dangerous everyday things that were silent killers. I imagine the ultimate ratings grabber—a three-parter taking all the previous sweeps stories about things that can kill you and creating a montage of death—would make a news consultant drool. This series would feature Joe Sixpack going to a tanning bed wearing bowling shoes with no socks while eating undercooked chicken, soft-boiled eggs, and cookie dough ice cream he purchased in a supermarket that didn't disinfect its shopping cart handles. 

I’ve been stuck doing some of these so-called special stories. Some were decent, but many were a waste of time … or simply not doable. On one occasion my boss asked me to do a series on local cocaine dealers. 

“So, you want me to do a ride-along with the vice squad?” I asked.

“No, interview some actual coke dealers.”

“You can’t seriously think these people will go on camera.”

“Give it a shot.”

So, to cover my backside, I called my contact at the police department who had a good laugh and said, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

Meanwhile, one sweeps series we thought would never get off the ground turned out to be a big ratings hit: local ladies of the evening. A bunch of them hung around a street corner next to our TV station parking lot which was in a very dicey neighborhood. A crew simply walked out the back door and talked to a few of them, who were surprisingly not shy about being on camera. One gave us the sound bite of the month: “Sometimes a man wants a little somethin’… different.” Had the internet existed at that time, that clip would have gone viral. 

Then there are the “exclusives” which turn out to be stories no one else would bother doing anyway. “In a story you’ll see ONLY on this network, the U.S. Secretary of (insert job title here) drops by for an exclusive interview!” 

Finally, there are series that make viewers wonder why anyone cares. The backstory on those is that the sales department signed a big sponsor, and said sponsor demanded news coverage in return. “All this week … join us for our five-part series on window tinting!” Curiously, that station will begin airing lots of ads for a window tinting company. 

Meanwhile, producers are stuck trying to promote these stories during shows leading up to a newscast, with little teases designed to pique your interest. “The germs in your dish scrubbie can kill you! Tonight at 10!” For those who didn’t know death lurked at the kitchen sink, this is supposedly must-see-TV. If you worked at a station airing a prime-time baseball or football game, the tease often combined something serious with something fun, likely making viewers cringe: “Are you a candidate for a heart attack? After the game!” 

Several years ago someone collected the tackiest teases used during sweeps. The “winner” of this contest? “Male body part found on railroad tracks … after the game!”

As for ratings, advertisers crave the demographic of people between the ages of 25-54, because in theory they are the most influential when it comes to purchases, along with having the most money. You might be interested to know the ratings industry’s rather insensitive term for viewers over 65: Near-deads.

They’re the ones probably turning off the television. After the game.

Randy Tatano is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].

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