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Guest Commentary: Sports No Longer Rules Newscasts

Sep 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“Sports has become a nonentity in local television newscasts because it’s irrelevant in most viewers’ minds.”

That’s the opinion of Jim Willi, partner in the consulting firm Audience Research and Development, and he’s not alone. It’s becoming the mantra of many consultants, and station management is listening, especially in medium and small markets. That’s because sports is expensive to produce when research shows only 20 percent to 25 percent of those watching a newscast care about it.

That’s not always been the case. According to Mr. Willi, “Ten years ago viewers said they wouldn’t watch a newscast if it didn’t have a sports segment. Now sports news is testing at the bottom of the list.”

Mr. Willi cautions there are always exceptions, such as major league markets and markets where there is talent with an “act,” making sports a highly visible and therefore viable element in a newscast. Warner Wolf in New York and Dale Hansen in Dallas are good examples.

“It’s not sports viewers tune in for, it’s talent performance,” Mr. Willi said.

It wasn’t too long ago that sports fans appreciated sportscasts loaded with professional game highlights. Today, by the time the late news rolls around, fans have had access to a multitude of national and regional sports outlets. The Internet has also become a factor. Fans can follow any event, if not through actual streaming of audio or video, then by e-mail or paging.

Research completed by consultants Crawford Johnson & Northcott suggests that most local television sportscasters have not kept pace with changing viewer expectations.

Michael Anderson of CJ&N says that to be a successful contributor to the station’s on-air product, the sportscaster must be willing to evolve his or her role and on-air content to match the reality of changing viewer needs and expectations.

At KPNX-TV in Phoenix, the lead male sports anchor substitutes for the lead male news anchor. The station uses sports talent to cover general news when the assignment fits. News director Mark Casey has shortened the sports segment at 5 o’clock, but says there’s still room for more traditional sports segments at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. since the market is only 60 percent cabled.

While there’s plenty of professional sports to cover, Mr. Casey believes the bubble is about to burst. He says the franchises have reached critical mass on the dollars they can suck out of a market and predicts the industry will soon experience some kind of correction.

“There’s no doubt the NFL makes a great promotional platform for a TV network, but at what cost?”

Mr. Casey said many TV and radio stations forget pro sports teams are commercial ventures that should be buying time on the broadcast stations. Instead, he said, the teams get special consideration with promotional packages, which the teams turn around and sell to advertisers in what becomes a secondary market.

Mr. Casey said his station is minimizing its ties with the pro teams because “when there’s a problem, it’s difficult to do a fair and balanced news story on a sports organization that’s your business partner.”

News Director Forrest Carr at Tampa, Fla.’s WFLA-TV looks at it differently.

“It may be true that only 25 percent of our viewers care about sports, but that doesn’t mean these viewers are not important. A 25 percent decrease in ratings would be devastating-especially if these people go right to the competition. Plus, we are finding that meaningful local sports coverage is a good way to capture hard-to-reach adult males.”

“When the Bucs went to the Super Bowl this year, every single sports special WFLA aired was the top-rated sports special in the market that night.”

At the same time, Mr. Carr said, WFLA’s news ratings were normal. On nights the station followed late news with a sports special, the ratings spiked at the beginning of the sports special.

The lesson to be learned, Mr. Carr said, is that some sports fans were ignoring the news but tuning in just for the sports. He says WFLA’s strategy for the foreseeable future will be to see that the station serves both sets of viewers.

If stations curtail or significantly change the way they program sports in newscasts, it could change the business relationships with the pros. Professional sports organizations depend on promotion deals as well as the “free” publicity they get from almost daily coverage on television (and radio) newscasts. Discounting or giving time to a sports franchise that’s essentially a competitor is a station prerogative. However, one might wonder how long it’s going to take traditional businesses to start demanding the same “free” publicity in newscasts: the same advertising and promotion consideration given to the for-profit sports teams.

Meanwhile, reallocation of resources dedicated to covering sports is, with increasing frequency, becoming the order of the day. But what’s happening may be nothing more than a change in the way information is packaged … and sold.

Al Buch is a former general manager at KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kan. Nancy McKenzie Dupont, Ph.D, teaches journalism at Loyola University in New Orleans.