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Market research shaping newscasts

Jul 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

What do hand-held devices, telephone surveys, focus groups and content analysis have to do with covering the news?
Plenty. In today’s competitive market, news executives are always seeking an edge over their competitors, and audience research tools are usually where they turn to get it.
Industry observers say demand for research beyond ratings and demographics has increased over the years, though it’s waned recently due to the sluggish economy as the programming choices of viewers have grown. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, believes news professionals who use audience research rarely base decisions solely on it.
“In the end, editorial judgment is going to prevail. This is a balance between what people need to know and what people want to know,” she said.
At CNN, the network sometimes conducts large-group research in which 50 viewers are assembled to watch a news show. Each is given a hand-held device with a dial to be turned one way if they’re interested in what they’re watching and the other way if they’re not. Data from the wireless devices is fed directly to computers that provide instant responses.
“I think you want to know what’s working and what isn’t, and the research can really tell you that,” said Bob Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner Broadcasting System, the AOL Time Warner division that oversees CNN.
Over the past 30 years, Kovsky & Miller Research, a small firm based in Hawthorne, N.Y., has conducted content analysis for local and network newscasts, late-night talk shows and prime-time dramas. Armed with VCRs and sophisticated computer software, Harry Kovsky and his colleagues watch each newscast in a market for a few days, breaking it all down second by second, frame by frame.
Every strand of minutiae is categorized-from how the news is packaged and the way the talent is used to the number of seconds weathermen devote to their forecasts and the amount of chitchat the anchors engage in. The data is fed into a computer program that churns out a report of 400 or so pages for the producers and journalists.
“Remember, I’m not telling them what to do. I’m saying, `This is what you’re doing,”’ Mr. Kovsky said. “There are some news directors who believe they can put their newscasts together without [this] help. They may be deluding themselves.”
There’s plenty of sensitivity about these tools, however, particularly at the network news level, and some executives are quick to distance themselves from it.
“I’ve been in this business for 23 years. I pay very little attention to it,” said Jim Murphy, executive director of “CBS Evening News.” Of audience research, such as telephone surveys and focus groups, he said, “We haven’t done any in the time I’ve been here.”
But veteran CBS News anchor and managing editor Dan Rather told Charlie Rose during a recent interview on PBS that he is often confronted with such data.
“There is all kinds of `market research,’ quote-unquote. I always put it in quotes because I don’t trust it very much. Poll information and other viewers that say, `Look, Dan, you can’t have a broadcast in which you have two or three pieces nearly every day from overseas. If you do that, you lose,”’ Mr. Rather said.
“And you say what when they present you with that reality?” Mr. Rose asked.
“I listen very carefully because the first thing is to last. You need to survive before you can thrive,” Mr. Rather responded.
Mr. Murphy said the research Mr. Rather referred to was not conducted by or for CBS. “He’s talking about the [general] body of that work over the years,” the executive said.
An ABC spokesman declined to comment for “competitive” reasons. But a source said the network contracts with research firms to conduct focus groups and viewer surveys about its news formats and talent but rarely about its content. The editors have the final say regardless of what the data reveals, the source added.
NBC News looks only at ratings, said spokeswoman Alex Constantinople, but the network’s owned-and-operated stations and sister cable network MSNBC conduct audience research that includes viewer feedback about content.
“You can’t accurately evaluate something unless you can put a measurement around it,” said Steve Doerr, a senior vice president for NBC’s O&Os. “I think it would be a mistake to look at research and make a knee-jerk reaction to it.”
The national newscast that comes closest to pure, unadulterated editorial judgement is the “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS, which says it never uses research or ratings. “We don’t feel a need to research the composition of our audience,” executive producer Lester Crystal said. “We don’t have the resources for ratings.”
Local television stations, with their increasing amounts of news, appear to rely heavily on viewer research to test-market promotions and determine if newscasts satisfy expectations.
Frank N. Magid Associates, headquartered in Marion, Iowa, and Audience Research & Development, based in Dallas, are among the more prominent shops local stations turn to.
“We use every methodology,” said John Quarderer, vice president of research at Magid.
Cox Broadcasting hires Magid to conduct “tracking studies,” which examine specific elements of news coverage, and larger studies once or twice a year. Said Tom McClendon, vice president and director of research for Cox, “Our feeling is to give the viewer what they want, not what we think they want.”