WASHINGTON (CNS) — Do you remember when the Super Bowl used to be in January?

Do you remember when the Academy Awards used to be in March — not just this year but every year?

The calendar moves are all part of the ratings game. And if ratings are a game, we viewers are the pieces on the game board.

February is one of the ratings “sweeps” months. So are November and May. There’s even a little-heralded sweeps month in July.

What happens during sweeps month is that networks load up with the most attractive programming possible, because how the network does in the sweeps-month ratings helps dictate the price of advertising in the subsequent months before the next sweeps period.

If 70 million people are going to watch the Super Bowl at any one time, it’s better for the network with that year’s broadcast rights to air it in February, because 70 million sets of eyeballs don’t mean as much in January.

What nobody likes to admit is that March and April don’t have the kind of programming blockbusters shown in February. So when the ad rates are set for the months ahead, ad buyers are paying Super Bowl and Oscar prices for decidedly non-Super Bowl and non-Oscar-level programming.

This has migrated to the other sweeps months, too. “Dallas” asked “Who shot J.R.?” in May 1980 — causing millions of Americans to speculate on the answer. That answer didn’t come until the following November — as luck would have it, also a sweeps month.

Ever since, TV writers have tried to come up with cliffhangers to end the season and keep viewers coming back for more. Now, you’ll also see promos for the “fall finale” or “winter finale” when a series takes a break from showing new episodes. Sometimes they’re in November to make ratings hay. Other times they’re in October as the series makes way for special sweeps-month programming.

The red-headed stepchild of this phenomenon is the series finale, so viewers can see that old gang one last time before they cross over into rerun heaven.

How much should this matter to you? If you’re media literate — you may be already but just not think of yourself in those terms — you may be irritated or annoyed, but there’s little you can do about it.

And if you’ve already passed the half-century mark, you might as well forget about it. Even though older viewers boost a network’s overall numbers as well as the average age of their viewership, the advertisers are more interested in younger demographics. Think ages 18-49. Some networks aim for even younger audiences. It seems their buying habits aren’t as ingrained as the older folks’. So if you see a 30-something driving a Cadillac in a commercial, don’t take it personally.

Likewise, don’t get fooled into thinking everyone else will think you’re 20 or more years younger than you really are if you buy or use certain products. Instead, they may think you haven’t grown up yet.


Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.