NBC seeks a sweep shift

Feb. '09 digital 'hiccup' feared

NBC has asked Nielsen Media Research to consider moving next year's February sweep up a few weeks to avoid a potential disruption from the switch to digital television, set for Feb. 17, 2009.

ABC, CBS and Fox have not asked Nielsen to consider such a shift, but most are said to be in favor of the move. NBC first raised the possibility in December before the holidays, and the issue is expected to be discussed at next week's client meetings held by Nielsen Media Research.

NBC is suggesting starting the February 2009 sweep on Jan. 15 and ending it Feb. 14, three days before the digital transition. While sweeps are routinely moved back-and-forth by a few days to avoid Thanksgiving or daylight savings time changes, such a major shift by two weeks would be unprecedented. The only time Nielsen has canceled a sweep was in the New Orleans market where audience measurement was suspended in the months after Hurricane Katrina.

After years of delays, the federal government is requiring broadcasters to cut off the analog signal and require everyone to use a digital set or converter to watch TV.

NBC Universal research chief Alan Wurtzel said he's concerned that the digital transition is to take effect in the middle of the February sweep. "From the measurement standpoint, there's clearly going to be a little hiccup in the middle of February when that transition occurs," Wurtzel said.

Estimates of the "hiccup" effect vary, with broadcasters saying they will do everything they can to make sure that millions of Americans who now depend on the over-the-air analog signal will make the jump to digital. It's a measurement issue because it isn't clear whether Nielsen will be able to install digital converters in all of its sample households that use analog. It also is not clear how many people either won't get the word or won't convert in time.

The networks and Nielsen say they are hopeful that everything will go smoothly and are working to make that happen. But others have said that it could disenfranchise millions of mostly lower-income viewers who either won't know that the transition is happening, delay buying a new TV or a converter or won't be able to afford it. About 13.5 million households depend solely on over-the-air TV; untold millions more have at least one set in their house that isn't connected to cable or satellite.

"We have been approached by clients asking us to consider a variety of options," Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes said. "We don't have a final decision, but we're tracking the situation closely and we want to do what's right for the entire industry."

While the importance of sweep months has declined in the past couple of years, since the introduction of Local People Meters, they still matter for local stations whose ad rates are largely determined by their ratings performance during the sweep months.

"For many affiliates and stations, February is a very important sweep," Wurtzel said. "If you were to move the sweeps up … it would avoid the transition date."

Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.