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Tuned In: Local news viewership slipping, survey shows

Thursday, April 20, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

News executives often think print TV critics are out to get them, which isn't necessarily the case (not with me, anyway). But it's an understandable reaction. What we write tends not to be overwhelmingly positive.

But there's finally some quantitative evidence to support what I've known anecdotally from hundreds of letters, e-mail and phone calls: Many viewers are fed up with local news. And it's not so much the reporting they object to as much as the trappings of TV news.

A nationwide survey by Insite Media Research found increased viewer dissatisfaction with repetition, sensationalism and misleading promotions. As a result, one in four adults have quit watching.

Scott Tallal, president of Insite Media Research, said he first became concerned about viewers tuning out local news in the early 1990s. At that time about 10 percent of those surveyed said they watched something other than the local news when local news was on. Five years later, the number of viewers avoiding newscasts began to rise, along with complaints about story repetition.

"Anytime 10 percent of the people surveyed are critical of anything, that's a big deal to us. We found complaints in excess of 50 percent, and that's among the people still watching," Tallal said. "Our biggest concern is that not only have we chased 10 percent of our audience away from local evening newscasts, but the people still watching are increasingly unhappy at levels that suggest the problem will only get worse before it gets better."

Tallal, who conducts market research to help television stations figure out how to "better serve their audience and improve their ratings," has no clients in the Pittsburgh market.

Complaints about repetition topped the survey, and 45 percent of respondents said TV news is too sensational. Almost 30 percent of those surveyed complained about misleading promotions during newscasts.

"Sometimes the cumulative time spent promoting the story is longer than the story itself," Tallal said.

He's also concerned about the drop in viewer loyalty and discrimination, which he blames on the homogenization of TV news.

"Three years ago if you asked people, 'Do you care which station you watch for local news?', 70 percent would have been news discriminators, saying it definitely matters which station they watch. Now, in most markets, that's down to 50 percent or lower."

While viewer loyalty is down, exclusivity is up, Tallal said, meaning viewers are by default going to the same station because they can't find anything they like better.

Tallal and the Coaching Company, a TV news consulting firm, put together a "Local TV News Viewers Bill of Rights," which includes the right to meaningful crime coverage, the right to more respect and the right to coverage of all the day's news.

Tallal, a former reporter, producer and news director who has done research for TV stations in many of the nation's top markets, said stations have reacted positively to the results of his survey.

"There are two ways to look at it: From an alarmist standpoint that people are bailing on local news, or you can say, we've got the information to get a product more in tune with what the viewers want," Tallal said. "That's the way every one of our clients reacted to it."

Not everything in Tallal's survey matches what I hear from viewers. He stands by the idea of reporters doing live shots from places where news hasn't happened for hours as long as their report includes an update from earlier in the day. Some viewers tell me they don't like gratuitous live shots.

Tallal's survey technique involves a system he created that records the responses of respondents. Their answers are analyzed by "television audience psychologists" who listen both to what is said and how it is said.

If someone says a news anchor is "so average," the words don't convey the sentiment being expressed, Tallal said. An analyst can decipher whether the comment is intended to mean the newscaster is boring or a likable, down-to-earth guy.

Complete results of Tallal's survey can be found online at www.tvsurveys.com.

NEW GAME IN TOWN: Don't believe the WPXI promo from earlier this week that claimed Channel 11 has "the only TV Game in town" (those spots have since been pulled).

WTAE skipped an on-air contest during February, but the station is back with a new contest for May sweeps, which begins a week from today.

"The Easiest Game in Town" has been scrapped for a savvy tie-in to ABC prime time: "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire on Channel 4?" begins Monday during the station's 5 p.m. news.

WTAE general manager Jim Hefner said he was pleased with some of the February ratings, but he felt a need to shore up the 5 p.m. newscast.

"From a household standpoint it was not the best we've ever had, but the demos were actually very good," Hefner said of WTAE's February sweeps ratings. "We looked at it without [a contest] and quite frankly, we can't allow contesting to be that big of a factor in the early [evening] news. It's an unfortunate fact of life."

(Hefner might want to watch it; he's making the point for KDKA and its long-standing contention that contests unfairly boost ratings.)

So will a WTAE viewer become a millionaire? The odds make it unlikely, but not impossible.

During the 5 p.m. news five viewers' names and cities -- entered by that person online, by phone or by mail -- will appear on screen. If the people named call within 10 minutes, each wins $2,000.

Sherry Carpenter, WTAE's director of creative services, said that each week, one $2,000 winner will have a shot at winning $1 million. How? That person must pick a number between one and 500.

"If it matches the preselected, randomly drawn number provided by our third-party promotional company, they win," Carpenter said. "If you consider the Super 6 [lottery game] has odds of one in 39.9 million and ours is one in 500, that's pretty good odds."

But those odds kick in only once you've already won the $2,000 and are selected to be the finalist. And what are the odds of that?

In November 1996, WPXI touted a $1 million top prize in its on-air contest, but no viewers walked away newly minted millionaires.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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