Newscasts Subbed, Retitled for Sweeps

Feb 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

On Nov. 24, 2003, it was tough to find the 11 p.m. local news on television in the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. market. With more than 53 percent of the market’s television households tuned to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” most local stations chose to pre-empt their late news with “special” programming.
Fox owned-and-operated station WTVT-TV delayed its normal 10 p.m. newscast by an hour and in its place ran a report on the 40th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. Gannett Broadcasting-owned CBS affiliate WTSP-TV scrapped its late-night newscast altogether and went with a special on the war in Iraq.
By juggling their schedules for the night, both stations were able to take advantage of Nielsen rules regarding special programming and to exclude that night’s news ratings information from the November sweeps report.
“It was a legitimate choice. We followed the rules, and we did nothing wrong,” said Peter Nikiel, marketing director at WTSP.
Over in Orlando, Fla., WKMG-TV, a Post-Newsweek-owned CBS affiliate, runs an expanded weather segment each Wednesday at 11:15 p.m., when the station’s newscast is punished by NBC’s potent “Law & Order” lead-in on rival Hearst-Argyle-owned WESH-TV. By calling the segment “Big Picture Weather,” WKMG is able to exclude that quarter-hour from its late news ratings.
Chicago’s WFLD-TV, a Fox O&O, retitled its Nov. 4, 2003, newscast, calling it an “election special” even though there were no Illinois elections that day. Result: WFLD did not have to count that night’s ratings in its November report. (In this case, the stunt backfired when the ratings came in higher than expected).
The race for news supremacy in the San Antonio market in May 2003 was so tight, stations juggled their programming schedules almost nightly-skipping, shortening or moving newscasts entirely. Belo-owned CBS affiliate KENS-TV and Clear Channel-owned NBC affiliate WOAI-TV ran barely half of their 10 p.m. newscasts per schedule during the sweeps period, as they shuffled to avoid head-to-head competition with KSAT-TV. The Post-Newsweek station was carrying San Antonio Spurs basketball games.
The Numbers Game
In most of these cases, concern over ratings drove the decisions. By making such tactical changes to program schedules, stations hope to avoid direct conflict with a competitor’s powerful programming. Removing what could be a lower-rated time period can effectively inflate ratings. Nielsen allows it, but only under certain conditions.
“We have about a 50-page book of guidelines that lays out how to title programs and when you can retitle a program and when you can’t,” said Nielsen spokeswoman Karen Gyimesi. “We meet with a select group of clients a couple of times a year to go over the guidelines. We take it pretty seriously,” she added.
That November night in Tampa, only WFLA-TV, a Media General-owned NBC affiliate, stuck with its traditional 11 p.m. newscast.
“This station has never killed a newscast and put on something else in its place in order to tweak the ratings. We are not going to earn people’s trust by playing such silly games,” said Forrest Carr, WFLA news director.
Sometimes stations can benefit from doing the titling game in reverse. CBS O&O WBBM-TV was the only Chicago station to show improvement in its 10 p.m. news ratings in November 2003 from the previous year. A revitalized CBS prime-time schedule provided strong lead-ins most nights. But the station also took advantage of the fact that rival ABC’s WLS-TV factored out “Monday Night Football” from its November ratings report.
“Take out Monday nights, and the increase in [WBBM’s] late news is all of three-tenths of a point. Their big gain came on Monday nights, when there was one major station not there to compete with,” said Emily Barr, president and general manager, WLS.
Retitling or eliminating newscasts is a more common practice on holidays. Nielsen rules permit stations to exclude those days from ratings reports, because viewer habits can be radically different. Many stations choose to do so.
Ms. Gyimesi said Nielsen will continue to tweak its guidelines on program titling, but added that stations can still exercise substantial leeway in interpreting and employing the rules.
“That’s what is so interesting about ratings,” she said. “Just about anyone can find a good story in there for themselves, and it’s up to the industry to weed through that and interpret it, including the fine print.”
Although WFLA’s Mr. Carr believes his station made the right decision to stick with its standard schedule on that November night, the results were not pretty. WFLA drew roughly half its normal audience.
“The ratings were so disappointing,” he said, “I’m just not so sure we would do it the same way again.”