When you are a wide-eyed college journalism senior, as I was in 1976, you have three things in your sights: 1) finishing all-night final projects; 2) making certain not to sleep through any of your finals; and 3) landing a job, preferably in your chosen field.
Nearly 40 years ago, college communications textbooks contained nothing about The Sweeps.
Most of us thought sweeps were guys who did what Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert did in “Mary Poppins.” Sweeps were also four-game victory strings on a weekend homestand for the New York Yankees.
My first experience with The Sweeps in a television newsroom made me realize the concept of continuing education was a novel one.
October 30, reporters, anchors, producers, videographers, news directors and general managers in local stations from Glendive to Atlanta entered into a quarterly 28-day ritual. Those four weeks test the patience of the most adjusted of humans. At times, people yell and throw things. Other times, people yell and want to throw other people. In tense moments, people yell and actually do throw other people.
In extreme cases, the collective result of that month can mean the difference in one’s employment. If things turn sour, some of the aforementioned practitioners could end up as the equivalent of what is about to happen to Brady Hoke at The University of Michigan.
Such is the journey known as The Sweeps.
THE SWEEPS: A BRIEF PRIMER
The origin of “the sweeps” dates to the 1950s when two ratings service companies, Nielsen and Arbitron—-one of which has vanished from the practice, engaged in a “sweep” of local television markets for four weeks four times a year to determine the viewing habits of an often-fickle public.
Television sweeps have more flaws than faces with pockmarks. The whole concept is remarkably silly but persists because the advertising community and broadcast managers continue to agree to it, or spin the argument that they cannot develop anything better.
For an industry on which the flow of advertising dollars and the job status of thousands of people ride, sending a paper booklet called a diary to a few hundred homes and accepting the validity of hand-written records of program-watching is mind-boggling.
WHEN THE SWEEPS GO ASTRAY
More than 30 years ago, my managers at WSAV in Savannah, Ga., actually traveled to Florida to physically view the diaries. This was shortly after the February 1983 sweep in which ABC carried the blockbuster miniseries “The Winds of War” and CBS aired the two-and-a-half hour finale of “M*A*S*H.”
WSAV had not received the anticipated boost in ratings from the ABC multi-night drama. Management was more than curious as to why.
At the time, Nielsen awarded credit for viewership on the basis of the call letters registered on the diary. On more than a scattered few of the booklets, a viewer listed “The Winds of War” but credit was given to the CBS affiliate because that diary-keeper wrote WTOC as the station he or she was watching.
Management suggested, in a paraphrased emotion, “We’ve got a bunch of idiots filling out these things.” Yeah? After further review, the painful reality could have rested in the failure to market the station call letters successfully to viewers.
The system, to be honest, has been refined in the last 20 years. The largest markets in America are electronically sampled on a daily basis. Yet, the continued emphasis on a quartet of four-week sampling is still ridiculous.
With bluetooth and sensor technology, the television industry has the capability to measure the viewing patterns of virtually every human in front of a screen in the United States every second of every day. Perhaps that will eventually happen, but the gut feeling (something not exercised in the broadcast industry often these days) is in the year 2050, television managers, advertisers and ratings service companies will continue to put their eggs in November, February, May and July.
THE SWEEPS: MY FIRST EXPERIENCE
My maiden voyage with The Sweeps was with a practice that is now a dinosaur in television news departments. My first news director, Dick McMichael, at WRBL in Columbus, called me in to instruct me in “how to do a five-part series….it’s a proven winner in television. You’ve gotta do one for February.”
Only the people who were interviewed in “Growing Up Is Hard to Do” remember it. Not even I remember much about it and I am one of those blessed with a memory many others wish was not one of my personal gifts. The concept was to profile teenagers both as individuals and in a group as to the struggles of growing up in the rough-and-tumble world of the 1970s.
What Dick wanted was for me to find the dregs of teen life for at least one or two parts of that five-episode monument. The term “gang” did not have the context it does today. They were not an active element in Columbus, Ga., in the day. When you tell high school principals or guidance counselors what you’re doing with a project such as this and ask, “Don’t give me your straight-A students,” they comply. They give you their A-minus students.
When the rating “book,” as the ratings report is called, for The Sweeps in February was delivered, I discovered something interesting. The week in which “Growing Up Is Hard to Do” aired, “TV3 Eyewitness News” actually scored one rating point higher than the previous seven-day period. Definitely the reason was because of my wonderful reporting. None of the other news stories in Columbus during those five evenings had as much impact as my visits with high school kids.
WHEN “THE WHAMMY” INTERCEDES DURING THE SWEEPS
To all of you who are current producers, reporters, anchors or administrators in television news—-if you think you have it rough during The Sweeps, I sincerely hope the following mini-chapter will lighten your load and your mood. Feel free to laugh, cry, commiserate or send sympathy cards.
The most ridiculous and insipid sweeps “stunt” (another glossary term for a gimmick you would not try at any other time of year or wish on your grumpy uncle at a family reunion) in which I was ever involved nearly forced me to voluntarily leave the profession.
The man responsible is one whom I have never forgiven and never intend to see, speak to, or associate with for whatever days I have remaining on Earth. His name, which I unabashedly reveal, is Ed Bewley. Ed was indeed the epitome of The Whammy, the old animated character that cost you whatever bankroll you had amassed on the CBS game show “Press Your Luck.”
I had been spirited away from WRBL to the enemy trooops—-the ABC station WTVM a few blocks up the street on Wynnton Road.
While still at WRBL, I had my first encounter with The Whammy—-my moniker for news consultants. Telcom Associates, one of the lesser-grade advisory groups, was hired to modernize the look of WRBL News, redo the set, give us a new and exciting name (“Eyewitness News,” what a renaissance title) and make us look more hip (something that was next to impossible to do in a station where “the WRBL image” was more institutional than the Supreme Court).
Dick sent us a memo that read, in short, “Telcom is not coming in with a broom. They’re here to help.” I wanted to ask, “But, Dick, if they’re basically going to tell us what to do during The Sweeps, how can they do that without a broom?” Dick would not have appreciated my brand of humor (he does now, as I thoroughly enjoy lunches with him on my return visits to Columbus).
Five-part series, you say? Yes, that went the way of the prime time entertainment miniseries. No one would do “Roots” today. The five-parter gave way to the three-parter, then the two-night series, then the one night special report touted by promos such as: “Is glass in the food of your child’s school cafeteria? An I-Team special report at 11.”
WTVM employed what was considered the crown jewel of consultants—Frank N. Magid and Associates. I had read the mini-biography of Mr. Magid and why he started his business to tell TV news departments what to do. I never did learn the first name of his partner Associates.
Occasionally, some of Mr. Magid’s Associates decided they could do what he did better than he did. So, they proceeded to break away from the exciting city of Marion, Iowa, and start their own news advisory firms.
Ed Bewley formed “Ed Bewley Consults,” which sounded like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “The Bee Says,” that talking toy with a string Mattel released in the 1960s.
Ed Bewley Consults begat The Media Associates which begat Audience Research and Development, known today by people who speak such languages as “AR&D,” or by people really in the know as “ARD.”
HEADED FOR THE PROMISED LAND: “ON LOCATION”
In January 1978, Ed crafted an idea that had to come from a government agency. Only official Washington could have developed such an inefficient, complex idea that was destined for failure.
The four members of our anchor team—-news director Kathy Pepino, the world’s most dangerous weathercaster Mitzi Oxford, and our sports director were called in for a motivational session about this monster project that was going to propel us to the Promised Land in the February sweeps. We were leading the ratings at 11 o’clock but in the Eastern time zone, early evening was where the premium advertising revenue tree was harvested. We trailed by a full 10 rating points at 7 p.m., where we went head to head with WRBL.
This transformational event in Columbus television history bore the exciting name of “On Location.” Not even Kathy exhibited unbridled enthusiasm when she introduced the project to us.
The game plan: WTVM would rent a large Winnebago. For six weeks, Kathy, Mitzi, the sports director and I were to prowl the hinterlands, shoring up the audience base of 15 rural counties in West Georgia and East Alabama surrounding Columbus. We would be literally “on location” from Monday through Thursday every week from January 15 until February 28. The assignment, should we decide to accept it, was a combination gladhanding, backslapping excursion combined with story gathering in each town.
To navigate all of this, we would have to leave each morning between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and not arrive back in Columbus until 4 p.m. Oh yes, we were still expected to do the 7 and 11 p.m. news every night. After all, this was The Sweeps.
Do the math. Four days of each week, we would be pulling 16-hour shifts plus a regular eight-hour day on Fridays. Unless Jethro Bodine is calculating, that adds up to 70-hour work weeks for six consecutive weeks. Perfectly normal in the television news business.
This all may sound like a glorious opportunity to engage our audience, a term which was yet to be invented. However, I challenge you to look at those dates again: January 15 through February 28. Mind you, Columbus, Ga., does not have the same first-of-the-year weather as Toronto or Anchorage but neither is it South Florida. The temperatures in midwinter can still test one’s stamina.
My internal reaction, which I did not immediately express aloud, was Georgia winters had a history of being both cold and wet.
Mitzi, one of the most delightful people you will ever meet, was rarely as diplomatic as was I. She asked without hesitation: “Kathy, why aren’t we doing this in April and May when it’s warm, people are out doing things and you have so many community events? We’re all going to get sick.”
Ms. Oxford, a year younger than I, had no idea how clairvoyant she was. Or perhaps she did.
THE GRAND VISION
Ed’s original vision was for us to speak at civic clubs, community organizations, or schools, visit industries, and do interviews with the local radio personalities. In addition, we were expected to develop two or three stories in each town and air them on the same night in which we visited. Mind you, this was in the days before live trucks in a city the size of Columbus. Promos would tout, “Action 9 News….ON LOCATION in Eufaula….tonight at 7!,” in the grand scheme of Ed’s big picture.
Common sense, not often a prevailing trait among local television executives or News Whammies, finally surfaced. WTVM only had one video editing station. We had four other reporters who would be toiling away at the station scrambling to commandeer time to edit the real news in Columbus and other cities where the Winnebago was not invading. Some editors were fast. Others were akin to the horse that trails the rear in the Kentucky Derby.
“Kathy, there is absolutely no way we can come back at 4 or 4:30, knock our people out of turn in the edit bay and air these stories on the same night. We only have one down day every week and we’re going to be exhausted,” I semi-boldly pleaded.
Seeing another opening, Mitzi added, “Explain to me how I am going to have time to find my soundbites, edit a story and prepare my weather for 7 o’clock.” Oh yes, this was in an era where another gimmick had Mitzi doing the weather outside, rain or shine, on a patio set behind the WTVM garage.
Kathy conceded the logistics required a sensible compromise. “Ed said we have to do this and Lynn agreed to it, so we’re going to have to do it….but I have another meeting about this and I will bring all of this up.”
Lynn, by the way, was our general manager Lynn Avery. Three years earlier, Lynn had upset the applecart both inside the station and in many parts of the city. He fired the station’s long-time anchor Al Fleming. Soon exiting were veteran weathercaster Penny Leigh and sports director Jim Koger in favor of a youth movement.
Our team was actually Act II of Lynn’s plan. Fleming’s first successor Tony Windsor left for Jacksonville, Fla. Penny’s replacement Rich Baumann departed for private business. A heavyweight personality, sports director Gary Hogan, found greener pastures in Little Rock.
How the second configuration came to be is for another blogpost. Kathy later confided to me over a greasy supper at Captain D’s next door to WTVM that she did not like the entire idea of “On Location,” but Ed had convinced Lynn that “if we execute it right, we’ll be number one.” Kathy was inwardly nervous. This was her first shot at being a news director. If the Winnebago project failed, she could easily become the fall lady. So could the rest of us.
THE SWEEPS: SIX WEEKS OF SHEER EXHAUSTION
Kathy negotiated a compromise. We would be given a one-week lead time to edit our stories from each city. In each of our goodwill stops, we would reinforce to viewers the specific night the pieces would air.
The other key piece to the puzzle: I would have to drive the van. Mind you, this was not a small crankout camper. This was a full-fledged motor home of the ilk as a grand prize in the showcase of “The Price Is Right.” I had never remotely driven anything larger than a 1967 Chrysler Newport Custom.
When that Winnebago was delivered to the station parking lot, I gasped. When I managed to drag myself to Lynn Avery’s office to ask why I would be the chauffeur, he didn’t mince words. “Ray’s had a couple of accidents and I don’t trust him with it,” he said.
Ray? That was our sports director, Ray Bewley. If the last name sounds familiar, he was the younger brother of the architect of “On Location.” Ray was and still is one of the most easygoing, affable guys you will ever meet. In my view, he was the 180-degree opposite of his brother. If a fire was moving down a hall, Ray would just walk past it and say, “That’s not so bad.” I always thought Ed spoke like a research project. I used to joke that Ed probably wouldn’t decide which foot to put on the floor first in the morning if he didn’t consult a focus group.
One other tidbit: because I was the driver, I was mandated to travel all 24 days of the project. To provide some respite for the others, Thursdays were designated as a day of rotation. One Thursday, only Kathy and I would go. The next Thursday, Ray and I would tag team. The following Thursday, the woman who could have been one of my relatives, Mitzi, and I would grace the tour stop.
I was given a list of battleground cities that were key to our ratings performance. My additional assignment was to spend my mornings at home lining up the personal appearances. I logged more than 40 phone calls but somehow, we had bookings everywhere from Auburn to Opelika to Cuthbert to Americus to Plains to Hatchechubbee.
I deliberately made our final stop Callaway Gardens, the tourism showplace in Pine Mountain, Ga. I figured whether “On Location” was a gamechanger or a bust, the four of us were entitled to one day in a spectacular locale.
Here’s something else about driving a huge Winnebago in the winter. Those things take forever to heat. The dealer from whom the station leased the motor home told me I would need an hour to warm the vehicle for comfort. That meant if we were leaving out of Columbus at 8 a.m., I had to be in the parking lot at seven to fire the engine.
Remember what I feared about the weather? Sure enough, that first morning the temperature was 34 degrees at departure time and the skies were anything but blue. We encountered the first of 16 days of rain during the six-week excursion. On none of those days of what seemed to be ceaseless showers did the temperature reach 50 for a high.
January 15, 1978, the four of us and production photographer Steve Curry felt like the passengers on the S.S. Minnow. If memory serves me correct, we were so giddy toward the end of “On Location,” we actually sang the opening theme from “Gilligan’s Island” as we headed out of the city limits of Columbus.
Our first stop was Auburn, a 45-minute drive from WTVM. The next morning, we hit neighboring city Opelika. The newspaper which serves the two cities is The Opelika-Auburn News. However, you were told immediately that the two cities had their own identity. Opelika was Opelika. Auburn was Auburn. “We are NOT Opelika-Auburn,” declared the Auburn Chamber of Commerce director.
In Opelika, we encountered our first indication that this would not all be goodwill. Our host was a rather imposing man, Henry Stern. Kathy and Mitzi were retrieving their purses to leave the Winnebago. “Come, come!” Henry shouted. “Industry is waiting!” About a half-hour later, Henry gave us a laundry list of items about which we were not to discuss before a civic club. That kind of instruction smacks of censorship to any journalist. We all agreed outside of Henry’s view that we would not adhere to any of his restrictions. Mitzi looked at me and said, “How did you get us hooked up with this guy? Are you sure his name isn’t Stern Henry?”
In Americus, only seven miles from the boyhood home of President Jimmy Carter, the four of us were asked to participate in a panel discussion at the local high school. We soon discovered this was an unexpected trap. This was not just a student audience. A group of parents appeared and they were hotter than a July afternoon at the news media.
Less than a year earlier, my former station, WRBL, did a controversial report on a young teacher who was accused of physically abusing a child in her class. The parents called the reporter, Jack Kendrick—a good friend and colleague who had moved on to Mobile. They produced pictures which revealed raw spots on the child from where she was allegedly excessively spanked. The teacher and her attorney refused to talk. Almost everyone clammed up until the principal finally agreed to speak a week later to WRBL in the interest of presenting a balancing side to the story.
The teacher was, by all accounts, loved in the community. She had the full support of the principal and the superintendent. In the subsequent trial, she was exonerated by a jury. Yet, the experience left her so shaken she left Americus.
Mind you, this was not WTVM’s story. The station did cover the trial. Nonetheless, people in Americus—a town of 14,000—were hot at anything remotely resembling a reporter. So, we absorbed the punishment for a rival’s journalism. We never received a thank you note from our friends at WRBL.
Three weeks into “On Location,” we had our first casualty. Mitzi, worn down from marathon days and nights, coughed her way through an 11:15 weathercast. The next day, she was diagnosed with pleurisy. She was on the disabled list for four days.
The next week, Kathy was stricken with quasi-pneumonia. Her doctor said she didn’t have it but may as well have. Kathy went on the Missing in Action list for three days.
During Week 5, I was in the middle of the Monday night 7 o’clock broadcast. Suddenly, my mouth moved and only a whisper came out. I sounded more like Redd Foxx pitching to a reporter’s package. I handed the copy to Kathy and told her I had the clammiest feeling. If she would finish the stories in that block, perhaps I would have enough for the second segment. That was wishful thinking that would not be fulfilled. By 7:30, I knew I was running a temperature. The reading was 102.3. I was out from 11 and for the next two days.
Lynn was becoming increasingly irritable that his anchor team was dropping like flies during The Sweeps. This is the same man who once came down to the newsroom when one of our team members developed laryngitis and was incapacitated. He stuck his face right in front of Mitzi and shouted, “I’ve never missed a day of work or a day of school in my life and I don’t expect any of you to. Do you understand that?” Mitzi calmly responded, “Yes, Lynn.” He wasn’t through. “I said, ‘Do you UNDERSTAND THAT?'” For a moment I thought he was impersonating Frank Sutton’s Sergeant Carter on “Gomer Pyle, USMC.” Mitzi, answering as if she was a platoon member, yelled, “YES, LYNN!”
One of the funnier moments came in the final week. On the previous Thursday, Ray and I were the twosome in Eufaula, Ala. He said, “Well, you know, I’m the only trouper out of all of us. I haven’t missed a day.” Four nights later, Ray reported the happy news that he had a temperature of 102. We did not see him until Wednesday.
THE VERDICT OF “ON LOCATION” DURING THE SWEEPS
We managed to air all of our stories one week after we visited each town. Some of us came in early on Friday to edit, though we craved sleep. Occasionally, we would drop in on a weekend afternoon and piece them together.
If you want to have a real gauge on whether what you are presenting in a newscast is compelling, ask your production crew. They are not focused as journalists. They have a critical job to do but they watch a news broadcast far more as a conventional viewer does.
My barometers at WTVM were our two top directors, Spencer Cleaveland and Ron Luker. Three weeks into “On Location,” Spencer called me off after an 11 o’clock newscast and asked, “Why are y’all doing this?” I asked what he meant. “I mean all of these soft, warm and fuzzy stories in all of these towns,” Spencer said. “This looks like PM Magazine, not news.” A couple of days later, Ron echoed Spencer’s evaluation. “Steve, I like what you bring to the table with us,” Ron said, “but this is all fluff. It’s like things we’d do on the morning show. They may think this is going to bring up the ratings…..but I don’t know.”
That was a red flag to me. Those two guys were equals as team members, even though they didn’t work in the newsroom. I confided in our producer and my good friend Cliff Windham. If anyone was a rah-rah cheerleader, it was Cliff. He just did not sense a groundswell of enthusiasm for “On Location.”
After six weeks, 1,800 miles on the road and four casualties, “On Location” was mercifully over. Only in the final two days did the temperature ever rise above 55 degrees. Mitzi did research and determined January and February 1978 were the coldest of those two months in 12 years. We kept scratching our heads as to why we could not have postponed this to the spring. Ed’s argument was because February has the largest number of television viewers. He was right about that. Had he looked into the eyes of the worn out anchor team, perhaps he would have realized something different.
The Book, in those days, arrived at each television station exactly three weeks after the final night of The Sweeps. The Book resembled a small magazine but it was like a detailed version of the report card we all received every six or nine weeks when we were in school.
The optimist in me naively wanted to believe “On Location” would turn the tide at 7 o’clock. If it did, it would likely mean I would be taken seriously as a lead anchor at the perilously young age of 23. The realist in me kept hearing the voices of Spencer and Ron. People in my church kept telling me how much they enjoyed the features. They all knew me. They were not the gauge of the community at large.
On a Thursday at 12 noon, I received a call from Cliff. He was not prone to call me unless we had an emergency situation. “Steve, The Book is in,” Cliff said, almost milking drama except his voice—unless he was pulling a surprise—did not suggest victory. “From what I am told, we did our worst ever at six o’clock since the Action 9 News format has been in place.”
Two hours later, I was in Kathy’s office. She showed me the results. We had fallen from 10 points behind to 12 points down at seven. We still had a slim lead at 11 but that was not what Lynn spent thousands of dollars to achieve.
No one was fired but word filtered down that blame was being assigned. Kathy told us Ed expressed to Lynn that the execution of the project was all wrong. Mind you, a news consultant has never accepted responsibility, to my knowledge, of failure. Either the talent is wrong, the presentation is wrong, or the execution is wrong. Anything to get another contract.
Within a few months, however, change came. Kathy lost the news director stripes but continued as the lead co-anchor for another year. Ray, perhaps sensing a tidal wave at hand, transitioned to a role as marketing director for Callaway Gardens. Mitzi, who rang the bell with viewers, continued on weather but we soon moved her out of that outdoor environment after she was nearly struck by lightning when a vicious thunderstorm erupted a minute before one of her forecasts.
I was ushered in and told I was not mature enough to compete in the lead role as anchor. The station wanted me to continue as a reporter, which I did for the next four years. In retrospect, I do not disagree with the assessment. I was going against two veteran heavyweights twice my age in a city with an older demographic population that valued experience. Even though I had lived in Columbus in my childhood years, I did not have the professional experience, nor the connection with enough of the community to be a genuine competitor. Five to seven years later, maybe. Not at 23.
THE SWEEPS: EPILOG
The Winnebago went back to the dealership the day after “On Location” was finished. We finally returned to a traditional sleep schedule and revived our energy levels. Mitzi came in to the edit suite—actually a converted closet—a week later and said something that allowed me to find a slim silver lining out of what was a physically and emotionally debilitating experience that did not end well.
“You know, I know we’re all exhausted and we don’t want to see another motorhome any time soon,” she said, “but if there’s one thing I enjoyed, it was being around you. You’re a good guy.” I had only worked with my colleagues barely seven months. When I came to work at WTVM, they only knew me as that Sunday night anchor on the other station. When you travel for six weeks to a cornucopia of small towns and spend 72 hours a week with them, you either come away with relationships torn to shreds or you bond. Thankfully, we bonded.
I have maintained a lifelong friendship with Kathy and Mitzi. In the 36 years since “On Location,” I have only seen Ray at an Action 9 News reunion we staged in 1998 but he was the same affable guy he always was.
Four decades later, I still look at “On Location” for what it was—a gimmick. It was one of the excesses that leads to justifiable criticism of television news.
In my opinion—and at age 60, I feel robust and uninhibited in expressing it—it was also a distraction. We were removed from the function of reporting genuine news that made a difference in all of those communities. Instead, we aired a travelogue. We shook many hands and made hundreds of brief acquaintances but did that result in throngs of people making WTVM their appointment station for news? In a word, no.
The real rainbow appeared two years later. With a change in general managers and a commitment to serious journalism that challenged the establishment and some of the excesses, including some government corruption, in Columbus, viewers began slowly migrating to us. After a calculated error in management by WRBL in 1980, WTVM toppled the long-dominant leader in the market.
The Sweeps are an anachronistic animal that creates pressure on TV news departments to artificially hype stories and presentations they do not necessarily offer in non-sweeps months. Yeah, yeah, you can go to MediaPost.com or Broadcasting and Cable and read the pontificating thoughts of news and station executives who will defend to the death the value of The Sweeps. So be it. The same arguments will continue to be made years after I and the current generation of journalists are gone.
However, if you are employed in a television news department and are feeling added stress during the month of November, just remember this: you don’t have to drive a Winnebago through backroads and barren country highways at 7 a.m. in the morning in the midst of frigid temperatures. You don’t have to smile and wave at people who begin to look alike over six weeks. More than likely, you won’t contract pleurisy or pneumonia. You probably have to deal with The Whammy but it wasn’t the same Whammy we experienced 36 years ago.
The Whammy? Oh, he was finally shown the door the following year. Kathy’s successor managed that in a him-or-me showdown. I suppose he was out of gimmicks to execute his grand vision for Columbus television news. I went my way. He went his. We are both better off for it.
If The Sweeps get to you in your newsroom, don’t worry. The Old TV News Coach will be glad to refer you to a good psychologist in your town.