Nielsen Black Weeks
Until the early 1970s, the A.C. Nielsen Company (now Nielsen Media Research), provider of audience measurement information, would not release a national ratings report four weeks out of the year. During these so-called “black weeks,” the networks would fill their schedules with plenty of repeats and the occasional “prestige” program (documentaries and news reports). Learn about the history of the “black weeks” and why they went away.
From the dawn of commercial broadcasting in the late 1940s, the television industry has been obsessed with measuring its audience. Ratings and shares, percentages and demographics determine which shows stay on the air and which shows are canceled. Audience measurement began in 1930 for radio with the “Crossley” ratings (named for the man who developed them, Archibald Crossley) used by the Cooperative Analysis of Broadcasting. The Crossley ratings were supplanted by C.E. Hooper Inc.’s “Hooper” ratings in 1946.
Hooper moved into television in January 1948, initially in New York City only . In July 1949 the first national television Hooper ratings were released . C.E. Hooper sold its national television and radio services to the A. C. Nielsen Company in March 1950, although it stayed active in local ratings . Other rating services competed with Nielsen over the years, including The Pulse, Trendex, the American Research Bureau (ARB), Videodex.
Each of these companies had their own methodology. Some used telephone surveys or paper diaries. Nielsen used a device called the Audimeter, which was hooked up to a television set and recorded which channel was being watched, as well as paper diaries. Often, different services would show different programs at the top of the ratings. Controversy over television ratings and the impact they had on program selection by the networks led to congressional investigations in 1958 and 1961, a Federal Trade Commission investigation in 1962 and another congressional investigation in 1963.
In 1961, the House Interstate Commerce Committee, headed by Representative Oren Harris, concluded that there were “important sources of error in the methods used by each rating service” but that “the services seem to be estimating the ratings fairly well on the average . The FTC found that rating services “had misrepresented the accuracy of their ratings and used survey techniques that invited basic errors” .
Although concerns over accuracy and error never abated, the networks continued to depend on television ratings, particularly those compiled by the A.C. Nielsen Company, when deciding how best to fill their schedules.
The A.C. Nielsen Company issued its first national ratings survey, based on the Nielsen Television Index (or NTI) in May 1950 . The sample size of the NTI grew each year as television became more and more popular. It was 1,178 television households in April 1963 . Twice a month, the company published its “pocket piece” report, based on a two-week period and broken down by homes reached, ratings, shares, audience and more .
In addition to the pocket piece, which was “the most looked-at national rating report in the TV industry,” Nielsen also published a bi-monthly “complete” report that was more detailed than the pocket piece and a Multi-Network Area report (or MNA) fifty times a year that covered television viewing in 24 television markets where all three networks had affiliate (representing roughly 40% of television homes in 1963) .
The Nielsen pocket piece only covered 48 weeks out of the year. During four weeks — in late April, late June, late August and late December — there were no national ratings. It was a tradition that began when Nielsen was measuring radio audiences and continued with television (it also offered the company an opportunity to fine tune its computers and give employees a break) .
The name “black week” came from Nielsen’s calendar, where the first report of any given month was marked in red, the second in blue and non-rated weeks in black . Val Adams of The New York Times suggested that the “‘black week’ is one of the few things a low-rated show has to look forward to” .
The third full week of December 1965 (from Monday, December 20th through Sunday, December 26th) was a “black week.” For the networks, given that overall television viewing would be down due to the holiday, it was an especially good week not to have to worry about ratings. A total of twelve shows were repeats, including an episode of Ozzie and Harriet first shown twelve years earlier. NBC also dusted off an episode of Sing Along with Mitch from 1961.
Although noting the repeats, Adams stated that “aside from reruns, ‘black weeks’ can have other effects. At times networks schedule special shows during ‘black weeks’ that they would not present during a rating week. Some are good, others are bad. But wouldn’t it be a lot more fun if every week were ‘black week'” ?
The following year, what would have been the fifteenth week of the 1966-1967 season (Monday, December 19th through Sunday, December 25th) was another “black week.” Thus, the seventh NTI report for the season ran from Monday, December 5th through Sunday December 18th, 1966 and the eighth report from Monday, December 26th through Sunday, January 8th, 1967. For the networks, it was as if that fifteenth week — and any programming they filled it with — didn’t exist.
Other Nielsen “black weeks” included:
- Monday, April 27th, 1970 – Sunday, May 3rd, 1970
- Monday, June 22nd, 1970 – Sunday, June 28th, 1970
- Monday, December 21st, 1970 – Sunday, December 27th, 1970
- Monday, June 26th, 1972 – Sunday, July 2nd, 1972
- Monday, December 25th, 1972 – Sunday, January 1st, 1973
- Monday, April 24th, 1973 – Sunday, April 30th, 1973
Television critics, recognizing the opportunity a week without Nielsen ratings offered the networks, were fond of “black weeks,” aside from the crush of repeats. Writing in December 1970, Clarence Petersen of The Chicago Tribune wrote that he was able to take a break from his duties as a television critic because of the “black week”:
Next week is a very good time for a TV critic to take a vacation because it is what is known in the industry as a “black” week. That does not mean that every program has an all-Negro cast. It means that the A. C. Nielsen Company will be taking no national ratings.
And that, in turn, means that there will be a lot of reruns on the networks. In most years, black week is also a time for the networks to present a lot of programs they can point to with pride–programs of great prestige that nobody watches but everyone says television should do more of.
But with the economy so tight this year, there will be little of that and a lot of stuff that is just old.
Which means that I can ignore television with a clear conscience, and that is pretty much what I plan to do. 
In June 1972, John J. O’Connor of The New York Times discussed “black weeks” with regard to television documentaries:
It’s documentary time, so this must be “black week.” In television, obviously, that has nothing to do with matters racial. It’s only the label given to a week in which Nielsen doesn’t take any ratings. The networks can relax and put on some of those news, public affairs or cultural specials that win citations for responsibility but usually do not win the mass-audience sweepstakes.
It’s not precisely the most courageous of programming tactics, but look at it this way: at least a couple of times each year, the viewer is practically guaranteed a hefty portion of meat with his regular portions of much. 
Television journalists, however, disapproved of the way the networks would clump news reports and documentaries in weeks when the ratings didn’t matter. The 4th Annual Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Survey of Broadcast Journalism included the following passage: “We regret the continued second-class status given to important documentaries, which are placed in inconvenient and unpopular corners of the schedule, crowded into ‘black weeks,’ and otherwise variously ignored and manipulated to fulfill the requirements of commerce .
In September 1973, Nielsen introduced its Storage Instantaneous Audimeter (or SIA), connecting 1,200 households directly to the company’s computer hub in Florida. It could produce national ratings in just 36 hours, far less than the one to two weeks it took the company’s older system. National ratings would be available every day of the week, every week of the year. There was no longer any need for “black weeks.”
Mourning the loss of the “black week” were the critics. Said Clarence Petersen, “I’ll be sorry to see them go. Obviously, we need them .” Other critics, though, rightly predicted that the networks wouldn’t suddenly abandon the idea of the “black week,” primarily around Christmas and especially with regard to repeats. As John J. O’Connor noted, “Technically, because of a Nielsen policy change, black week doesn’t exist anymore, but the habit lingers on .
O’Connor had high hopes that the networks would continue offering prestige programming:
In cold economic terms, some advertisers do actively seek out more adventurous, less predictable fare for the holiday season. Also, the total viewing audience tends to decline what with Christmas shopping and family gatherings. The week leading into Christmas hits a traditional low for the season. Finally, at some point the networks have to place prestige above the demand for maximizing profits. The balance sheet has to be supplemented with awards, the kind of awards that are usually won by specials. A good reputation can mean good business. 
Les Brown was somewhat less optimistic: “Watch and see what gets scheduled during Christmas week […] Among other things the Christmas week viewer may expect is reruns rather than original episodes of the weekly series” .
Today, the broadcast networks have in many ways written off the summer months, premiering little in the way of new programming (although reality shows have been successfully launched during the summer). So the two “black weeks” that used to take place in June and August are now only part of a larger period of lackluster television programming. The week leading up to and including Christmas, however, is still filled with repeats, as are periods around other major holidays.
As for the late April “black week,” which used to mark the end of the television season, it was made unnecessary in February 1996 when the networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX) announced they had decided to extend the traditional season through May . This eliminated the gap between the end of the traditional season and the start of May sweeps.
Although there have been attempts to switch to a year round television season, rather than one that starts in September and ends in May, for the most part the industry still lives by the same rules it did in the 1940s and 1950s. Nielsen Media Research, which grew out of the A.C. Nielsen Company, provides ratings that heavily influence the networks and frustrate viewers.
Since the end of “black weeks,” only once has Nielsen not issued a weekly ratings report. Following the events of September 11th, 2001, when news coverage pre-empted network programming for four days, the company decided not to release national figures for the week that ran Monday, September 10th through Sunday, September 16th .
2 Wolters, Larry. “Berle Tops TV Hooper Ratings For Networks.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 7 Jul. 1949: B5.
3 “Radio and Television: Hooper Sells National Air and Video Rating Services to A. C. Nielsen Company.” New York Times. 1 Mar. 1950: 37.
4 “Report on TV Ratings.” New York Times. 24 Mar. 1961: 63.
5 Gould, Jack. “F.T.C. Questions Radio-TV Ratings.” New York Times. 4 Jan. 1963: 1.
6 Wolters, Larry. “The TELEVIEWER.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 8 May. 1950: B10.
7 Blair, William M. “Locations of Secret TV Rating Meters Disclosed.” New York Times. 5 Apr. 1963: 33.
8“The Current Climate for TV Ratings: Standing on the Status Quo.” Television Magazine. Apr. 1962: 73-75; 99-107.
10 Margulies, Lee. “Ratings Race A Photo Finish?” Los Angeles Times. 18 Apr. 1980: H17.
11 Adams, Val. “When a ‘Black Week’ Looks Good.” New York Times. 19 Dec. 1965: X21.
14 Petersen, Clarence. “TV Today – Critic’s Wife Sets Pace for Holidays.” Chicago Tribune. 18 Dec. 1970: B23.
15 O’Connor, John J. “Some Meat With Your Mush?” New York Times. 25 Jun. 1972: D15.
16 Petersen, Clarence. “TV-Radio Newsmen Caught in Crossfire.” Chicago Tribune. 22 Feb. 1973: B9.
17 Petersen, Clarence. “‘Black Weeks’ Bring Out Prestige Programs.” Chicago Tribune. 27 Apr. 1973: A17.
18 O’Connor, John J. “Tis the Season For Those TV Specials.” New York Times. 1 Dec. 1974: 191.
20 Brown, Les. “TV Notes: How ‘Sweep Weeks’ Hype The Ratings.” New York Times. 7 Dec. 1975: 205.
21 “Network Execs Extending the Season Through May.” Newsday. 15 Feb. 1996: B.49.
22 Moraes, Lisa de. “For an Extraordinary Week, Nielsen Puts the Ratings Aside.” Washington Post. 20 Sep. 2001: C.07.
Originally Published February 9th, 2009
Last Updated April 21st, 2013