Timeout for sports?

Aug 19, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A year ago, KSNW-TV declared it would bench traditional sports segments. There would be no more blah, blah, blah wrap-ups of scores and game recaps eating up three or four minutes of the last block of local news time.
Al Buch, general manager of the Emmis-owned Wichita, Kan., station that is the NBC affiliate for one of every two Kansas residents, was taking the leap that has been contemplated by an increasing number of station managers and news executives. That leap is based on research that says viewers either have no use for sports information or they want all the information they can get. In the latter case, they are likely to get it on demand on the Internet or turn to all-sports channels such as ESPN and Fox Sports long before it is handed to them during a regularly scheduled newscast.
A survey several years ago placed sports 14th on a list of 15 topics ranked by interest from local TV news audiences. No. 13 was news out of Washington. No. 15 was news about religion.
“There is no doubt that, in terms of content areas, sports is extremely polarizing,” said Brent Magid, president of Frank N. Magid Associates. He said the “avid sports viewers” are a distinct minority. “The significant majority can either take it or leave it or despise it,” he said.
“The appetite is 10 miles deep and a centimeter wide” once you get outside live, play-by-play sportscasts, said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting’s eight-affiliate group.
Privately, many station executives will say they continue to do sports segments because they hesitate to alienate the sports audience, even if it is small.
“We’re lazy,” said one successful group executive.
Others argue that if you look at the subject not as sports but as local news there is only one answer: You cover what’s important to your audience.
What the Internet and cable sports channels don’t do is “provide the localism” that individual broadcasters can, said Steve Schwaid, VP of news programming for the NBC Television Stations Division.
“I think that’s where our growth is,” Mr. Schwaid said. “If you drop sports entirely from a newscast, you send a message to your viewers. You’re not carrying sports just to carry sports. You’re carrying sports because it touches the community.”
Many stations have moved sports to the last block of their newscasts. Others have turned the length question into a brand.
“We’ve got it pretty much down to a science,” said Brennan Donnellan, news director at WSTM-TV, the Raycom Media-owned NBC affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y. Routine sports information goes into a capsule package called the “2 Minute Drill” done live at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Monday through Friday (and on tape for early-morning newscasts). “We don’t do it on weekends, because the sports load is heavier,” Mr. Donnellan said.
Done before a video wall that shows a timer ticking down the two minutes, “2 Minute Drill” has an animated open and has become a brand, as well as a franchise, since it was launched more than two years ago.
However, if a sporting event warrants more expansive coverage, the station will accommodate it. For example, WSTM added coverage for the NASCAR Winston Cup race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., that was broadcast by NBC Aug. 11. In addition to “live hits” starting in news blocks the night before, the station produced a half-hour special that was shared with two other Raycom stations.
The station also pays a lot of attention to Syracuse University athletics, which “are, to some in this community, as big as major league sports,” Mr. Donnellan said.
Meanwhile, back in Wichita, the LPGA U.S. Women’s Open in nearby Hutchinson, Kansas, in early July was a “big story” and was covered as such, Mr. Buch said.
But KSNW’s less-sports stance hasn’t caused any ripples-or imitators-in the 452,770-TV-home DMA in which it ranks second in homes in the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news races.
Mr. Buch’s competitors argue that with the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs, the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, and the fierce following for high school sports, there’s no shortage of pro teams and amateur franchises in the tri-state DMA (the 65th-largest in the country, according to Nielsen Media Research) in which viewers are likely to have more than a passing interest as a regular part of their overall news package.
“It’s a strength in our coverage,” said Joan Barrett, news director at longtime market leader KWCH-TV, the Media General-owned CBS affiliate.
At Benedek-owned ABC affiliate KAKE-TV, news director Jim Holland said, “We just continue to cover everything that’s news. Sports is important to us.”
At the time KSNW said it was essentially benching sports as a news staple, Mr. Holland told the Wichita Eagle’s Jeffrey Parsons: “I would not call what they did a trend.”
A year later, Mr. Holland, whose sports segments run nearly three minutes on average and longer on weekends, said, “They did not and have not covered sports to the level that we feel they should be covered.”
But KSNW has not reduced sports’ profile to the degree Mr. Buch envisioned a year ago, when, for a few weeks, the main news anchor read whatever sports information might be delivered.
Primary sports anchor Leon Liebl delivers a 11/2-minute sports package in KSNW’s 10 o’clock weeknight newscasts.
“What we have chosen not to do is relegate sports to a three- to four-minute segment at the end of the newscast,” said Mr. Buch, who believes placement at the end of a newscast “is a way of kissing off [sports] anyway.”
“We are covering it based on news value,” he said.