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Tuned In: Stations are swept up in close ratings races

Thursday, October 30, 2003

By Rob Owen

Even a few weeks ago, you could feel the beginning drumbeat for November sweeps, which kick off today. Stations' news promos became more urgent. The hype ratcheted up from its usual, already high, level.

During sweeps months, a station's viewership is measured to set future advertising rates. The approach taken by stations (and networks in prime time) is the same tactic used by children: He who screams loudest gets the most attention.

WPXI and KDKA continue to battle for the breaking news audience, although Channel 11 has also started taking shots at WTAE in a promo that proclaims, "More real news, less fluff, fewer unimportant stories."

Channel 4 is known for having a greater variety of stories in its broadcasts and relies more on features. The Channel 11 promo presumes this is a bad thing, but I'd rather have variety than endless breaking non-news.

But Channel 11 loves its breaking news, even bragging in another promotion, "Over the past two months there were more than 100 breaking news stories. ..." So now they're touting coverage of stories that qualify as "news" mostly because they happen during the newscast and can be shot live from a helicopter?

Another, less important, battlefront is at 10 p.m. It was only a matter of time before WNPA's promotions picked up on Sinclair's decision to News Centralize WPGH, forcing Channel 53 to go to suburban Baltimore for national news and weather, some portions of which are taped in advance.

WNPA and sister station KDKA now air promos that tout Channel 19's 10 p.m. news as "the only truly local, truly live newscast." Never mind that it's not true. WPXI produces a live, local 10 p.m. newscast for PCNC.

Regardless, KDKA takes advantage of what's now the Fox station's biggest weakness: A large portion of its broadcast is no longer local.

All this promotion comes as a result of this: The ratings race in Pittsburgh is extremely tight. WPXI and WTAE routinely jockey for first place in the morning. WPXI and KDKA duke it out at 11 p.m. All three stations are in a close race at 5 p.m., although Channel 4 has taken the lead recently.

In addition to on-air promotions, WPXI and WTAE also try to woo viewers during sweeps with contests. KDKA refuses to compete on that playing field by offering a contest of its own (other than year-round broadcasts of lottery drawings), and KDKA executives fume over such tactics, which are allowed by Nielsen Media Research, the ratings arbiter.

After a July press conference in Hollywood, Frederic G. Reynolds, president of Viacom Television Stations Group, which includes KDKA, said contests trivialize the news.

"It takes the seriousness out of journalism," he said. "That's where you get the 'if it bleeds, it leads' kind of journalism, and we won't do it."

With its emphasis on breaking news, it's up for debate whether or not KDKA plays the "if it bleeds, it leads" game, but Reynolds wasn't overly concerned about the impact of contests.

"It affects [the ratings] for those few weeks and those books, and then it falls right back off," he said, acknowledging that contests are a legitimate strategy. "If we did do it, then everyone would be doing it, and that would be fine, too. That could be a strategy. I just don't think it would be a long-term strategy. It's not illegal. There's nothing wrong with it, just like there's nothing illegal with leading with a murder every night."

Sweeps features

In addition to competing with promotions and contests, local stations also try to win viewers by promoting special reports. WPXI has even started to eat into the time devoted to weather updates in the "Today" show by airing promos for features in the evening news.

In an unusual move, KDKA provided an advance tape of a Marty Griffin report airing at 6 tonight. It's a story that's been done before at other TV stations, following men looking to engage in sex in a public place; in this case, North Park.

Griffin, sounding more like a "Daily Show" reporter than he probably intends, calls it "an open secret that this place has become a virtual meat market where men meet on a daily basis to have sex." Then he acts all surprised when one of the men he interviews while undercover threatens to kill him before storming off.

It's a tawdry little story -- one that's certainly not new and will clearly exploit some viewers' prejudices -- that fits the hyperbolic tone of sweeps. It's easy to report and has clear-cut villains (those lewd exhibitionists) and victims (the poor woman who just wants to walk her dog in the park).

October ratings

Going into sweeps, each station can claim victory in some time period. Ratings for October show WTAE in the lead at 5 p.m. and WPXI winning at 6 a.m. while KDKA is on top at noon, 6 and 11 p.m. (WPGH's 10 p.m. news ratings are skewed by baseball that pre-empted it on many nights.)

As for KDKA's new 9 a.m. broadcast, it's not doing much damage to the competition. In October, "Live with Regis & Kelly" on WTAE led with a 6.0 rating (percentage of TV households) and a 20 share (percentage of sets in use). The third hour of "Today" came in second with a 4.9/16. KDKA's 9 a.m. newscast was third with a 2.2/7.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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