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May Sweeps: Saving it for Marriage (and death and guest stars)

April 29, 2011

In one of my first entries, I wrote about the damage caused by pilot season, which crowds dozens of new contenders for our attention into a few weeks in September and October.  Less wasteful, but in many ways much more annoying to fans, is the ritual still taking place at the other end of the traditional television season.  Networks fill much of March and April with repeats in order to reserve finales filed with guest stars, pregnancies, weddings, deaths, and assorted destruction for air during May sweeps.  How in the name of Time-Shifting and On-Demand can this still be common practice?

Our patience as an audience isn’t what it used to be.  Many of my friends don’t even wait the customary week between episodes, storing six or seven on their DVRs to view as marathons or purchasing an entire year at once on disk or download.  I am old fashioned enough to still recall on which nights most of my favorite programs air and I can usually keep the various plot threads in my head long enough to get from one viewing to the next.  But when that stretches out to many weeks and many shows, I simply lose my momentum and more than a little will.  My inner storyteller gives up and goes to a metaphorical bar to forget all her troubles and, along with them, many of the finer details that enabled me to enjoy my beloved shows in the first place.  And what of those folks who either can’t afford or have chosen not to purchase some form of recorder?  They must check in at the appropriate hour to see whether they’re going to be treated to new content or an “encore presentation”.  (Now there’s a snazzy euphemism for you).

I won’t go over the tired terrain of what’s out of whack about the way ratings continued to be tracked.  But of all these outmoded conventions, the concept of sweeps is positively 2007.  The numbers are used primarily to set the commercial rate for local advertisers, which account for approximately four minutes per hour of programming.  That’s right: You had to retain all of that Seattle Grace intel throughout those rerun weeks just so that Callie and Arizona would get married in May and the car dealership down the road would pay a little more for that time slot through July.  Personally, I dropped the Grey’s habit during Dead Denny Days, but I feel your pain.  And really, how fair is it to those local enterprises that their cost is based on episodes with extra bite rather than typical weekly fare?

Occasionally, the networks have bowed to fan pressure and started the 20-24 week cycle of a drama in January so that we wouldn’t have to suffer through a break.  ABC’s “Lost” and FOX’s “24” were among those that employed this elegant solution.  There was a price to pay for this strategy, however.  Ratings declined in part because viewers had to wait an additional three or four months between seasons.  They developed other loyalties or decided to just bide their time until the release of the boxed set.  Further, this meant that networks gave up some reruns, an important part of the secondary income stream on which production relies.

If you’re anticipating the paragraph containing my astounding head-slapping solution, all I can say is if I had one I’d make a beeline for the closest network and share it.  Once one of them figures out a process that is respectful of viewers AND still makes money, they will all follow suit.  Until that time, we will have to suffer along with the status quo, or maybe take up reading.

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