Beware Of The "Sweeps"

We hear it all the time in our line of business, "every time there is a full moon, things get crazy." Well if there were a "full moon" in the television media world, it would be the time of the "sweeps."

What are the "sweeps"? Several times each year, Nielsen Media Research conducts a survey across the country to see what people are watching on TV.

The term "sweeps" has been around since the beginning of TV measurement. These measurements or surveys are called "sweeps" because Nielsen Media Research mails out diaries to certain households around the country, then collects and processes the diaries in a specific order. The diaries from the Northeast regions are processed first and then swept up around the country, from the South, to the Midwest and finally the West. The standard sweep months include November, February, May and July of each year.

In some larger markets, there may be an additional three months, October, January and March. A market is a viewing area, such as New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta or it can be a combination of cities.

So why is the local media so concerned about the sweeps? It is like a report card. It shows who is watching which TV stations and at what time. This is how they find out who really is the number one news station and/or program. At different times of the day, it may switch from one station to another.

After determining their rating, they then set rates for advertisement. The one who is number one can set the highest rates cause they know they have the largest audience. It is the ad money that keeps the station going. This is where it gets crazy. They will do anything to get people to watch their station. This is usually the time you will receive contests in the mail to watch the evening news for prizes or money. This is also the time when unusual stories of interest or more investigative stories take place.

Unfortunately, this is when most of the rules go out the window and in the past years it seems to have gotten worse. Hidden cameras, microphones, news crews sitting in parking lots taping your moves, the asking for records of salaries, sick leave usage, budgets, big fires, any thing is possible. This is where media people's careers may be on the line.

Also stories may be sensationalized and not be as accurate. They can make a three-car accident with three injuries sound like a mass casualty incident. Ever heard of the term "if it bleeds, it leads"? Sometimes during the sweeps stories of this type may be done several times over.

So how do you prepare for it? First of all, everyone should be under the assumption that you are being taped "all the time," from the time you leave home - until you return home. And don't forget even when you are off-duty, you still represent the fire service. Your behavior and demeanor should be above the norm. If you get into trouble while off duty, you're not John Smith, you'll be John Smith, a firefighters of the Anytown Fire Department.

When you are on duty or representing the fire department at an activity, you MUST be at your very,very best. Simple little things such as parking along a red curb as you run in to get a paper or cup of coffee, stopping at several stores shopping while riding in the rig, any of this could be video taped.

While I was the PIO for the Atlanta Fire Department several years back, we had a rule that personnel could not stop by the Union office while on duty in department vehicles (except in special cases.) One day I received a phone call from the local NBC affiliate investigative reporter stating he was in a van in a parking lot across the street from the firefighters' union office video taping fire apparatus stopping by the office all day while on duty. He wanted to know if he could meet with me and get a comment as to why this was being done on company time. I told him I would meet with him in an hour, I needed the time so I could find out what was going on. After calling Union representatives, I found out the crews were dropping off money and toys for a Christmas Toy drive that very TV station was sponsoring and the firefighters were going to make the presentation on TV that night. I couldn't wait for the interview and when I told him what it was all about, he dumped it. But I will never forget the felling I had inside my gut when I got that phone call stating he was out there all day video taping our crews. It could (and most likely will) happen to any of us in the future.

And never forget the public also has video cameras and if they have something that is newsworthy and for the right price, it could end up on the evening news. (The media will tell you they "never" pay for information or video tapes.)

Bottom line; always assume you are being taped - all the time.

Be proactive. A month before the sweeps, the media holds planning meetings on what stories they are going to work on during the sweeps. This is the time to "feed them" with your best stuff. "Invite" them to come to the department do a story. If you give them something to do, they will be too busy to look for something.

Two types of stories that always attract them is ride alongs or participation stories. I never get turned down and it always works out very well.

Ride alongs. Invite someone from the media (usually a reporter and camera person) to spend some time with a crew. I have even had them spend an entire shift. Give them an extra set of protective clothing for them to wear. You should not take them into burning buildings, but the thrill of putting on the gear, riding in the rig, going to the scene and participating will round out the story. It not only makes for a great story for them, it also gets the message out to the public about your department. It's a win-win situation. The best part, not only does the reporter have fun doing it, but in every case I have worked, the crew had just as much fun working with them. In EVERY case where we arranged for a ride along for a sweeps story, it turned out to be an excellent venture.

Participation. This is where the reporter participates in something other than a ride along. The best experiences I have had are either at the training center or at a drill/simulation. Again, put the reporter in protective clothing and have them participate. Maybe they can do something simple during an academy with some recruits or during a drill night. Set up a small fire in a wastebasket and demonstrate how a thermal imager works. By hooking the thermal imager into the recording equipment the media has with them, they could see the thermal column rising from the waste basket and from their own camera they could see what the naked eye sees. They could put it on split screen, something most people never get to see, you could be doing a first in your community.

I did such a thing with thermal imagers when they first came out ten years ago on live TV. What was supposed to be a two-minute/30 second story went to 13 minutes. No one at the station said to cut it off and we kept feeding it to them. Ten years later, I am still seeing parts of that story here and there.

On small departments, set up a mock auto accident and use the reporter as the victim. Have them sit inside the car as extrication tools are used and package them up, even put them in an ambulance and take them for a ride "to the hospital."

Another great tool is the Fire Safety House. Many people don't even know what they are. If you have one in your community or have access to one, build a story around it. Arrange for kids to be there to demonstrate how they escape and for interviews on what they learned. Again, not only are you showing what your department does best, you are teaching the community fire safety. And at the same time, you are making the media happy by helping them during their ratings period.

The sweeps can be a trying time, both for the media and for your department. But with a little planning, you can take advantage of it to show off your department and to promote fire safety in your community. And at the same time you are helping the media.

NOTE: How the media operates is one of the subjects that will be covered at the Second Annual Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Public Information & Media Relations Conference at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas, November 1-4, 2004. More information is available on the website: