Sweeps is a four week period that occurs four times a year to closely track ratings, in general and among certain demographic groups, for the purpose of setting advertising rates.
So, how do health and medical stories get picked for sweeps?
Let's look at a few examples.
- Previous proven performance. Just in the first two weeks of February (a sweeps month), I've had only one planned report. It was about an at-home obstructive sleep apnea screening device. I was appointed this assignment because pieces about sleep apnea tend to get good ratings in this market.
- Apparently allergies, particularly pollen allergies, also test well in this market. As a variation on a theme, I was gievn a piece on food allergies, too.
- Sheer numbers. Another piece worth mentioning was about the higher risk of stroke and heart attack associated with diet soft drinks. This came from a study being presented at the American Stroke Association meeting. Of note, this broke on the same day as the study from JAMA about leaving lymph nodes intact for women with early stage breast cancer. Because more people drink diet soda than have breast cancer, the former topic wins.
- Some challenges arose. Because the data was not yet published, not all of the figures I was interested in were available to me -- absolute risk, for instance, as well as the risk for the group that only drank regular soda. Also, all of the stroke neurologists in my city were at the conference. I ended up interviewing an internist who specializes in diet, nutrition, and weight loss for his perspective. Because of the preliminary nature of the data and the study design that cannot prove cause and effect, I simply stated the attention-grabbing finding, tried not to vilify diet soda, and made it a point to say the information was being presented at a meeting.
- The buzz. It's unfortunate a reporter had what appears to be a transient ischemic attack during a live shot at the Grammys, and some say it's unfortunate this unintentionally public medical event became news. But if you looked at social media sites, or dropped by the water cooler, it was topic of much discussion. I did not disagree with my bosses on this one -- this was newsworthy. As a retired neurologist, I saw it as a valuable teachable moment: a TIA is a medical emergency. I also included a short differential diagnosis in my report, something many of my colleagues did not do in their reporting, so as not to definitely declare this was indeed a TIA.
These aren't the only factors, of course, and we can look at some others the next time sweeps comes around. But it gives you some idea of how news organizations think, and how you and your patients get their local TV news.