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Producers, networks turn to Web for viewers’ voice

Jul 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When Bobby Flay defeated the Iron Chef of Japanese cuisine, Masaharu Morimoto, in a lobster battle in early June, fans were incensed. Several claimed the cooking match was fixed. One stated, “I haven’t seen that big of a fix outside the [World Wrestling Federation].”
And what was the forum for these reactions befitting a sporting event? The bulletin boards of FoodTV.com, the Web site for the Food Network, which carries the cooking-battle show “Iron Chef.”
The Internet has not only provided an opportunity for networks to extend their brands online, it also has allowed for greater and more immediate communication between programmers and their viewers.
The Food Network receives about 8,000 posts per week on its bulletin boards and about 1,500 e-mail messages each day, said Beth Higbee, vice president of new media for the network. With that level of activity on the boards, the network has a means, aside from ratings, of assessing viewer reaction and interest in its shows.
“There isn’t a better place to gauge viewer interest than the Web site,” said Eileen Opatut, senior vice president, programming and production, for the network.
She says she reads the bulletin boards every day, and the positive response to three “Unwrapped” specials that ran in April helped the network decide to launch the show as a series this summer. “Based on the ratings and the Web site, we decided to go forward with it as series.”
CNN has taken viewer input from its Web site a step further. Its 4 p.m. (ET) show “News Site” hosts an online editorial meeting at 10:30 a.m. every weekday. Host Joie Chen, along with her producers, participates in an online chat at CNN.com/newsite each morning to discuss the news of the day. Comments are considered for air during the show that afternoon, and often viewers’ ideas are used for stories.
For instance, a recent chat began with a discussion of rising gas prices, which was expected to be the lead on “News Site,” said Sue Bunda, senior vice president of CNN/U.S.
“All of a sudden we got a response saying, `I am in Canada and I am paying this much.’ `I am in Los Angeles and I am paying this much.’ `I am in Milwaukee and I am paying this much,”’ Ms. Bunda said.
The producers then culled the responses and produced a chart for the broadcast, billing it as a random sampling of gas prices around the country collected from viewers.
The modus operandi of the show has paid off. Since CNN “News Site” launched in late February, the show has averaged a 0.5 rating in its cable universe with 427,000 total viewers. In 2000, the show averaged a 0.3 rating in its cable universe, with 277,000 total viewers per day, according to CNN.
The “News Site” cyber meeting has also uncovered potential stories, such as a May piece about racially motivated death threats at Pennsylvania State University.
“That turned out to be a hell of a story,” she said. “We had never heard about this, and we probably wouldn’t have heard about it if not for the chatter.”
The Web site also offers a chat concurrently with the show, and chatters can pose questions for Ms. Chen to ask during interviews. “This is the audience’s chance to say, `This is the story. This is another angle.’ There is some sense of democracy in an era when audiences feel disconnected,” Ms. Chen said.
In addition to “News Site,” CNN produces “Ask CNN,” a segment that airs nine times a day and allows viewers to have their questions about news and events answered on air.
When CNN White House correspondent John King interviewed President Bush on May 16, a viewer inquired as to whether Mr. King was required to submit his questions for the president before the interview. The network responded later that day on air ( and the answer was no).
These types of interactions open the window a little more as to who the viewers are and what they want, Ms. Bunda said.
It also creates an investment for the user in the network. “Beyond traditional ratings, it’s a way to get a sense of whether we connected with viewers,” she said.
Since live news programming lends itself well to viewer interaction, CNBC has also gleaned online information and incorporated it its on-air content. “Squawk Box” and “Power Lunch” in particular regularly address viewer e-mail on air.
“Members of our production team scan mailboxes and will select incisive questions or a pervasive theme,” said Bruno Cohen, executive vice president, business news. “Our anchors will then say, `Here’s a good question from Amy,’ or `We’re getting a lot of questions on GE/Honeywell,’ for instance,” he said, referring to General Electric Co.’s proposed acquisition of Honeywell International.
ESPN has incorporated viewer comments posted to the Web into its newscasts. During a “Baseball Tonight” show this spring, the network included chat-room comments on a New York Yankees/Boston Red Sox game during the recap.
Such feedback is a regular component of both “Baseball Tonight” and ESPN News, said John Marvel, vice president and executive editor of ESPN.com. The Web site features a “Don’t Miss” section in which it solicits input on different sports topics and then incorporates the results into its news shows.