The staff and management at Atlanta TV stations have always embraced and dreaded the “sweeps.” They’re the ratings periods in February, May, July and November. The sweeps are embraced because TV stations go out of their way to produce special projects during those periods. Sometimes the projects are pretty cool. But they’re dreaded because management often becomes moody and irritable during these periods. They lash out by making the staff jump through silly hoops in an effort to make the station’s news division stand out.
For the last couple of years, Atlanta TV stations have benefited from year-round nightly ratings measurements, gleaned from data gathered electronically from selected Nielsen viewers. When overnight measurements became available in Atlanta, the sweeps lost their meaning.
But don’t tell that to the Atlanta stations. Management still bows down to the sweeps. The evidence is available on WAGA: Whenever you see reporters or anchors strolling through the newsroom, performing live teases of upcoming special reports, then a ratings period has hit. That’s the case now. The May book began in late April.
Wednesday, WAGA reporter Julia Harding was called upon to perform two newsroom teases in the 5pm news. In the first one, she twisted toward a tape deck, hit “play” and showed the audience video on a TV set. The video would have been more clear had the station played it from the control room as it typically does. But that would have denied Harding the interactivity with the machine— and in the eyes of WAGA’s managers, would have robbed the audience of the spectacle of watching Harding talk and do something mechanical at the same time. It was oh, so exciting.
Later within the same broadcast, anchor Amanda Davis walked up to Harding in another live newsroom tease. Davis casually intoned a carefully scripted toss, and Harding chatted a second time about her upcoming special.
Harding’s report aired at 6. She did a fine job of watching the physical rehabilitation of DeKalb police officer Dwight Green. Green had been struck by a drunk driver while on duty in September. The story was compellingly edited, with copious grunts from the officer as he struggled through his exercises. There was an optimistic conclusion about his prognosis. The story was probably more difficult to set up than it was to actually gather on tape. Give Harding credit for a nice bit of enterprise. And give her credit for being able to talk and push a “play” button at the same time.
What’s unclear is why, given the change in audience measurement, the suits at WAGA, WSB and WGCL still care about the May sweeps. We don’t know the answer. Our best guesses: Bragging rights, in an old-boys industry that places residual value on a now-wheezing system that reigned for decades. Another guess: The networks (or in WAGA’s case, its corporate owners at Fox) demand it because the info still goes into the national ratings pool based on the old, traditional model.
To its credit, it appears WXIA gives no respect to the sweeps, sleepwalking through them as it does through the rest of the year. The sweeps are a throwback to the days when Nielsen viewers kept diaries. The sweeps have overstayed their welcome.