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TV stations often promise more than they deliver when playing the promotional ratings game

Thursday, February 22, 2001

By Rob Owen and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Former investigative reporter Rich Robertson of Phoenix remembers the day he was sitting in his TV news director's office and the boss slid a notebook across to him. "There are a bunch of great stories in here for sweeps," he said. And, he added, they're really promotable.

    More on this story

News directors endure sweeps


"I said I didn't want it. He said, 'There's a great one in here -- you can take a black light and go into hotel rooms and see how clean they are.' I had just judged an investigative reporting thing for IRE, and I had seen, I think, six of those same stories from different parts of the country." The annual IRE Award -- Investigative Reporters & Editors -- recognizes outstanding investigative work.

Robertson was offended by the black-light reports on two levels: that reporters were doing the same, unoriginal story, and that they were submitting the pieces as representative of their best work.

"I said the only way I'm going to do that story is if I get to do it in the Lincoln Bedroom." And the day you have to give a reporter a folder of story ideas is the day you should fire him, he adds.

The 47-year-old Robertson, now a licensed private investigator, is a veteran of both the print and TV wars. He was a city editor and investigations team leader for The Arizona Republic and, more recently, an investigative reporter for KPNX and KPHO in Phoenix. He quit TV news 11 months ago to, in a line cribbed from a British defense minister, "spend more time with my principles."

The hotel horrors, tainted iced tea and stories about what disgusting things swabs turn up in public places are examples of what Robertson calls Velcro journalism. "You take these stories and move them from one city to the other," he said.

They're tested, they've spiked the ratings in other markets, and news directors hope they will do the same in their cities, even though they may have nothing to do with their communities.

A promotional spot for a WTAE newscast told viewers to tune in to a story about "X-rated cartoons being rented to kids."

Informed about a couple of the sweeps features turning up on Pittsburgh TV, including Alan Jennings' WPXI report about a dentist with a bogus license, Robertson said you might argue about the value of chasing a sprinting subject but at least it's a local story. "They're doing more than just taking something that really isn't about their community just for the sake of ratings."

Even a man waking from a coma today could figure out it's November, February or May by listening to the deafening level of hype on TV. The Coma Man (sounds like a sweeps story title) would know what most TV viewers have come to recognize: It's sweeps, one of the three primary months each year when TV stations' local viewership is measured to set future advertising rates.

For their part, the networks go all out with miniseries, movies and guest stars.

Local stations get into the act by hyping reports that will appear on their newscasts, including these standbys: scare 'em into watching pieces (porn in libraries!), common-sense tips viewers should already know (check the batteries in your smoke detectors!) and the aforementioned Velcro stories.

Tie-ins to CBS's ratings-winning "Survivor" are part of KDKA-TV 's sweeps strategy this month.

When Robertson worked at the CBS affiliate in Phoenix and decided to do a story about school finances and capital appreciation bonds, he initially kept the topic to himself. "I knew eyes would glaze over" at the morning news meeting.

When the report was finished, the powers-that-be liked it, partly because Robertson had found a way to visualize the amount of money at stake. He talked a bank into letting him go into a vault and be photographed with several million dollars in cash splashed across a table.

Robertson, as you might expect, is no fan of sweeps. "They spend a lot of money on promos, billboards, building up the image, sprucing things up during those unique times of year. It creates these artificial measurements that aren't representative of the entire year."

In a phone call from Phoenix, he added, "I would say they ought to be focusing on finding out what is important in our community and let's spend as much effort and resources doing those stories as doing these Velcro stories. It seems to me you've got eight hours in a day, a certain amount of equipment, people and resources, and you get to choose how to allocate those resources. They've chosen to do the easy route. ... Let's not take the easy route, let's take the route that's more beneficial to the community."

Television, he said, has a narrow view of what audiences are after. Yes, they may watch the highly promoted Velcro stories but viewers may feel misled. "After a while, the audience is skeptical. Then stations wonder why people don't take them seriously or why they have to work harder at promos, making them scarier."

Even many inside the TV industry decry sweeps as an outmoded concept, but it remains a reality because no one -- not the stations, not Nielsen Media Research -- wants to pay to measure viewership year-round.

Tom Dolan, a consultant/management recruiter for local TV stations, said sweeps months set up arbitrary standards that don't reflect the reality of what people watch most of the time.

WPXI-TV anchors David Johnson, left, and Peggy Finnegan introduce a report about a dentist practicing without a license.

"Everything I've heard over the last 10 years is that most people would prefer to go to a year-round ratings book system where consistent [ratings] trends can be established," Dolan said from his office in Frederick, Md.

Al Tompkins teaches writing, storytelling and ethics to broadcast and online journalists at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. But he spent 25 years in broadcast news, with much of that time devoted to investigative work.

"I don't think there's anything about four months out of the year -- February, May, July and November -- that viewers will mysteriously change viewing habits and change from one station to another," he said. That's why some stations don't even bother and shun ratings stunts. "It's so difficult to get viewers to form a habit, let alone change a habit."

Tompkins said the most important factor in a ratings period is who wins the lead-in -- the program preceding the news. In fact, that's why many stations have a seamless, commercial-free transition from the end of "Judging Amy" or "ER" or "NYPD Blue" to the late news.

Still, there is always the threat of viewers hitting a button and clicking away.

"A third of all viewers watching newscasts have a remote in hand or within reach," Tompkins said. "I have seen estimates that more than half of all viewers change channels at least once during a newscast. The older you are, the less you tend to surf. Females surf less than males, and females make up two-thirds of all news viewers. Males surf in non-news programs."

Prime-time promos try to get viewers to stay tuned for the late news, and the frequency and intensity of promotional spots rise during sweeps. Sometimes those promos are more inflammatory than the stories themselves.

Last week, WTAE ran a promotional spot with an announcer who stated, "Consumer Watch reporter Wendy Bell takes action for you by exposing X-rated cartoons being rented to kids."

But in Bell's report, she made clear the videos were unrated, not X-rated, and she began by saying, "We're not talking about hard-core pornography here."

Denise Dowling , a visiting assistant professor of journalism at the University of Montana, said that kind of promotion won't help a station gain viewers.

"If you don't deliver what you promise, that's the worst thing you can do to viewers who have certain expectations coming to a program," said Dowling, who left her job as managing editor at the NBC affiliate in Spokane, Wash., to teach last September. "One of the rules the general manager in Spokane always said to us was, 'You win viewers one at a time, but you can lose them by the hundreds by doing something like that.' "

Make no mistake: Sweeps are not solely for the benefit of viewers.

"During sweeps you get those hot topics and promotion that's trying to push peoples' buttons to get folks to tune in when maybe they normally wouldn't," Dowling said, adding later, "I think people forget television is a business."

That business is getting tougher. In fact, this is a critical month for news directors everywhere.

"This is the first ratings book in the first quarter of what's going to be a down revenue year," Tompkins said. "Every ratings point, every ratings half-point is absolutely crucial to a station's financial situation."

An increase or decrease of one ratings point can raise or lower the amount stations can charge for commercials by hundreds of dollars.

It's not that stations are losing money. On average, they're making 30 percent profits, Tompkins said, but they're not going to make as much as last year. If they're not going to increase revenue, they'll have to control costs. That already has meant cuts at places like CNN; some stations owned by the chain running WPGH have eliminated news departments.

Even as stations continue to trot out the most attention-grabbing sweeps features, getting a ratings bump three months a year is only a short-term fix. Keeping viewers must be the ultimate goal, Dowling said.

"You have to be consistent. Stations that are of the mindset that they can get people to watch during sweeps and translate into long-term ratings miss the boat if they don't deliver that kind of product every single day."

Even attracting attention during sweeps is difficult. When Dowling started in broadcast news in 1980, stations regularly ran sweeps series that sometimes lasted a week or more.

"People can't watch three nights in a row or five nights in a row," Dowling said, which is why most stations, particularly in Pittsburgh, turn out a different "highly promotable" story each day.

Part of KDKA's sweeps strategy this month has meant tie-ins to CBS's "Survivor" on the station's 11 p.m. Thursday and 6 a.m. Friday newscasts. "Survivor" at least has a local angle with cast member Amber Brkich of Beaver County, but would KDKA broadcast the reports if "Survivor" didn't air on CBS?

Playing off a prime-time series isn't new. WPXI has done stories tied to "ER." WTAE reporters have visited the sets of "NYPD Blue" and "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire."

"My personal feeling is local news should be local news," Dowling said. "I know NBC sends out on their feed service a tie-in to 'ER' and it's usually one of the medical things that comes up during the program. But people don't watch 'ER' because it's a medical show, they watch because it's a soap opera. Local news identity should be local news, and that's what you should give your viewers."

But during sweeps, that mandate changes slightly. It's not just reporting news as a journalist, it's also about giving viewers what a station thinks they want in an effort to draw them to the newscast.

Tompkins' take: "Viewers tell us over and over and over again, in a wide variety of ways, they want to know what's going on in their community, they want stories told in a clear, interesting, relevant way, and we don't want you to scare us but to alert us, guide us, hold the powerful accountable, give voice to the voiceless. If something interesting is going on that isn't bad news, that, too. What works, in addition to what's broken."

Although Tompkins has seen his share of silly sweeps features about who can deliver pizza the fastest, he also can point to powerhouse stories. During the February 2000 sweeps, the Houston CBS affiliate first reported a possible link between Firestone tires on Ford Explorers and accident deaths.

"That occurred one year ago, last February, and their initial story ran 11 minutes. That newscast won its night and for the first time in two decades, in November, KHOU become the ratings leader in news," Tompkins said.

Houston isn't the only place doing solid work. The Poynter coach rattles off a list of stations doing exceptional reporting: Cincinnati's WCPO, in the third year of its investigation into expenditures on new Reds and Bengals stadiums; WTHR in Indianapolis, which linked police no-shows in court and the dismissal of DUI cases; KARE in Minneapolis, which regularly cranks out stories five to six minutes long for its 10 p.m. news; and WFAA in Dallas, "one of America's great television stations."

Tompkins, who spent 15 years with the NBC affiliate in Nashville, said, "The point is, it's possible for television stations to do really great high-profile investigative work and do it quite well. And it's possible to do great work and not get ratings."

Broadcasters must balance the need to serve the public with self-preservation, and that makes TV news no different than any other industry, Dowling said. "There are good and there are bad, and it's up to viewers to watch the ones they think are doing an outstanding job."

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