Getting Serious During Sweeps

Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Are there germs at your gym or bugs in your bed sheets?
If there are, you probably won’t hear much about it from your local TV station. Many local broadcasters are avoiding the more sensational and, frankly, sillier sweeps segments that may have captivated news directors and viewers in the past. News directors at several top-rated stations said they are instead relying on more serious topics for their sweeps specials and the mainstay, consumer investigative reports.
While there isn’t a formula for a successful sweeps that will work at any station in any market, there are some commonalities in the types of specials, segments and stories that move the needle. Enterprise community stories and consumer investigation rate highly, particularly stories about local schools.
The top stories come from within the market, said Ed Chapuis, news director for San Francisco’s top-rated Cox-owned Fox affiliate KTVU-TV. The station runs “Segment 2” at 10:30 p.m. during the 10 p.m. newscast every night during sweeps and a few nights a week during the rest of the year. The pieces run about four to five minutes and feature deeper investigations into a single subject. During sweeps periods, about half of the segments generate a ratings spike at 10:30, which is unusual for late local news, Mr. Chapuis said.
`Classroom Crisis’
In the recently completed May book, KTVU anchor Dennis Richmond worked with a special projects producer to analyze the low 25 percent graduation rate at a Bay area high school. Mr. Richmond’s piece, “Castlemont Classroom Crisis,” on May 12 generated a 7.5/13 at 10:30 p.m., a bump from the 6.9/11 rating the 10:15 quarter-hour garnered. Anchor Leslie Griffith developed an education piece on the prospect of exit exams for graduation in California that on April 28 captured an 8.2/15 at 10:30 p.m., up a full point from the 7.2/12 the newscast scored in the 10:15 quarter hour.
“I think stories that stick closer to the news curve tend to do better than features, but there are some interesting offbeat profile stories that resonate well with viewers,” Mr. Chapuis said.
Good local civic TV is the recipe for sweeps success, said Bill Carey, news director for Detroit’s Scripps-owned ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV, which won the morning, noon and early evening news during the recent May book and narrowly lost the 6 p.m. race. Back in November the station won the 6 p.m. news, an unusual victory and one that was borne largely on a risk Mr. Carey took in carrying a month-long series on the local schools.
The station’s chief investigative reporter Steve Wilson produced nightly reports on missing supplies, books that weren’t given out to children for months, bathrooms with no stall doors and other problems in the school system. “We really exposed a lot of things,” Mr. Carey said.
The station still generates lighter fare. In February WXYZ hosted a party at a local restaurant for one of the candidates from “The Bachelorette.” The station also aired “The Oprah Winfrey Show” tie-ins in May, he said. “We hope the lighter stuff will bring them in for the more serious stuff,” he said.
What the station doesn’t do is say, “You won’t believe what we have tonight,” he said. That kind of Scare TV doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate anymore after 9/11.
Barbara Johnson, news director for NBC O&O WNBC-TV in New York, subscribes to the same notion. “Those type of stories are very difficult to consider anymore given the world we live in,” she said. “When you have planes flying into buildings the idea of germs at the gym [isn’t that compelling].”
Same Approach
Besides, Ms. Johnson said she doesn’t approach coverage any differently during sweeps and views the books largely as promotional opportunities for local news. “We don’t go back and say, `This spiked the ratings.’ If it’s a good story, if it matters, if it’s important to people who live here, that’s the criteria,” she said. Still, she added, “We acknowledge sweeps and that it exists and we do plan for it.”
But she won’t sit on a good story until a book. As an example, WNBC aired a 40-minute commercial-free report by reporter Jonathan Dienst about New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli in October, before the November ratings race. Four days after the report aired, Mr. Torricelli withdrew from the election, and the balance of power shifted subsequently in the Senate in the elections later that fall.
The most successful stories, sweeps or not, are investigative pieces, like the story WNBC carried the first night of May sweeps on security at 26 Federal Plaza in New York, she said.
Consumer investigations are powerful sweeps vehicles, said Susan Tully, VP and news director at NBC O&O KXAS-TV in Dallas, which has won the last five late local news crowns. In November the station carried a report on static fires at gas pumps, exposing that what many thought was merely an urban legend was actually a real possibility. KXAS generated a strong number that night and went on to share the story with other NBC O&Os, she said.