Sweeps month in Pittsburgh resembles sweeps in most television markets across the country. And like most news executives nationwide, Pittsburgh's news directors said it's not a system they'd choose if they had a choice.
"It's how our business is rated. Every business has certain guidelines they have to live under," said WPXI news director Jennifer Rigby. "Some days it would be nice to be PBS and do whatever the heck you'd like to do and not have to worry about it."
KDKA news director Joe Coscia said sweeps features are necessary to compete but shouldn't lead stations to abandon their primary mission of reporting the day's news.
"When you do a sweeps segment, it should fit into the show without it disturbing the core of your normal 5, 6 or 11 p.m. newscast," Coscia said. "You don't want to undo what you work so hard to do, which is to build an audience day in and day out."
Coscia points to KDKA's investigative reports and human interest stories in the 5 p.m. newscast and says those are the types of sweeps pieces he prefers.
"Those give viewers a reason to watch and are worth promoting," he said. "No killer chickens, not 'fear and loathing in your back yard' stories."
There is strategy involved in preparing for sweeps.
Coscia said an Andy Sheehan report on a priest accused of molesting boys at a high school 20 years ago "probably could have been moved up" before the sweeps period began, but the station "targeted it to run at 11 p.m. on a stronger night to keep an audience."
WTAE news director Bob Longo echoed the sentiments of every Pittsburgh news director that the way to win in the ratings is by offering "excellent coverage of news-of-the-day events" inside and outside sweeps. But Longo said stations must pay more attention to lead-ins and audience flow during sweeps.
"Every station that's being judged by overnight ratings [during sweeps] has a lot of daily strategy meetings looking at how you're stacking up and what you can take advantage of, what will help you and won't hurt you," Longo said.
Sweeps pieces are sometimes chosen for an 11 p.m. newscast based on who's watching the lead-in programs. A show like the 10 p.m. ABC drama "Once and Again," which has a predominantly female audience, might lead WTAE to schedule a story in the 11 p.m. news that "women may be more interested in and, hopefully, men won't tune away from," Longo said.
John Poister, acting news director of WPGH, said the Fox affiliate generally doesn't prepare sweeps pieces.
"That's not where we feel our strength is," Poister said. "We'd rather allocate our resources to covering the day's news. We put the best we can into every piece we're running rather than try to spread out our resources."
Poister acknowledged that bigger stations in larger markets can pull together nationally recognized sweeps reports because they have more resources. Stations like KHOU in Houston, which broke the Firestone tires story a year ago, and WFAA in Dallas, which regularly broadcasts stories lasting five to six minutes, have the benefit of more money and larger staffs to devote to sweeps stories of greater depth.
"I don't think there's any question about that," WPGH's Poister said. "When you make that kind of commitment, it does pay off. You can get some terrific stories and knock a market on its ear with something like that."
WPGH did try a few sweeps pieces last May, but Poister said the station wasn't happy with the way they turned out.
"When you get involved in sweeps pieces, it involves pulling a producer, reporter and photographer off the street," Poister said. "We tried it last May as an experiment, and we were not happy with the results. I don't think it helped us. I come from a school of thought that says sweeps piece don't really help."
A year ago at this time, the ratings backed him up. You'd expect a higher level of viewership in prime time during a sweeps month when episodes of favorite TV shows are guaranteed to be new. That, in turn, ought to pump up 11 p.m. newscast ratings. But judging by the ratings of January and February 2000, there's little difference.
Prime-time household ratings on KDKA and WTAE were lower in February compared to January last year. KDKA's 11 p.m. news ratings were down slightly in February compared to January. WTAE's news ratings at 11 were up in February by just two-tenths of a ratings point. Only WPXI saw growth between the two months, with prime-time ratings jumping more than one ratings point. Channel 11's late news was up one ratings point.