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Nov. sweeps key for local stations

Nov 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

“This November sweeps is the most important we’ve ever faced. Our future depends on it.”
The sign-on message posted on the Birmingham, Ala. CBS affiliate’s newsroom computer system reminds the WIAT-TV team what is riding on this November ratings period.
WIAT, a Media General Broadcast Group station, launched a new 6 o’clock newscast Sept. 10-the day before terrorist attacks on New York and Washington made a tough economic situation for TV stations even worse.
So far, the reminder is accomplishing its purpose to keep staffers focused during these strenuous times, says WIAT VP and General Manager, J.D. Huey. “Our goal was to provide an additional news option for 6 o’clock news viewers and increase viewing for the hour. We’re doing that.” And increased viewing means more revenue for the station.
WIAT isn’t the only television station with big stakes riding on its November performance.
“It feels like a cat on a hot tin roof in our newsroom,” said a marketing director at a Sacramento, Calif., TV station. “The newsroom is nervous. Nobody’s saying, `I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job,’ but you just feel it. The pressure is on.”
“It’s a book like none before it,” says Gene Kirkconnell, news director at Emmis Communications’ Wichita, Kan., NBC affiliate. In previous Novembers, KSNW-TV produced targeted special reports that hit traditional viewer hot buttons on such topics as how not to be the victim of a scam and how to find good bargains.
But this ratings period, “We put every special report to the test,” Mr. Kirkconnell said, “to make sure it relates to the war, homeland security or the economy.”
With more than 7,000 layoffs in Wichita’s aviation industry, “There are only two stories in this market,” Mr. Kirkconnell says. “War and the economy.”
The pressure to perform this November ratings sweeps comes after a year of cutbacks in America’s broadcast newsrooms. The year 2001 wasn’t shaping up to be good, anyway. Recent layoffs in groups like Hubbard Broadcasting, PBS, Belo and Sinclair Broadcast Group followed hiring freezes and even salary cutbacks at a number of broadcasters because of sluggish advertiser spending.
After Sept. 11, broadcast economics tanked as newsrooms blew out advertising for nonstop coverage of the terrorist attack on America. Every newsroom expense-from overtime to videotape to satellite time-spiked at the same time advertising went away.
With fourth-quarter revenues projected between 10 percent to 20 percent below a year ago, broadcasters will write off 2001 as a disaster and hinge their hopes for recovery on 2002 spending.
That makes every demographic share point won in November as good as gold.
“Obviously, the November book will be used to sell ads through June 2002,” explained Mark Fratrik, VP of financial research for BIA Financial Network. “So if you’re a No. 3 in a medium market and you stay No. 3 [in this book], you may have to assess whether or not to keep doing news. News is just so damned expensive.”
Furthermore, “How do you plan, produce and market promotable sweeps pieces when something might occur at any moment that makes the story trivial?” asked broadcast consultant Larry Rickel, president and CEO of Broadcast Image Group. He has advised his clients to steer clear of “gotcha” investigations during the November ratings book. It’s foolish, he said, to do stories critical of police on a topic that might be trivial in comparison with what’s happening.
The upside of this November is that those who win will win big, since more people are watching television. HUT and PUT levels promise to remain high throughout the all-important ratings period, putting a gold lining on this dark cloud, Mr. Fratrik said.
“The saving grace is,” he added, “so many people are watching news that even if you’re No. 3, you’re probably attracting more viewers than you were last November. And that’s what you’re selling-the number of viewers who are watching your station.”