With the growth of Local People Meters and the reduction in many budgets, the old “sky is falling” approach to special reports in station newscasts during the sweeps is fading and changing. Sure, some stations are still grinding out such pieces during sweeps, but many top-25 stations are spreading their best stuff throughout the year. And the sweeps stories being produced seem to be more substantive-honest-to-goodness investigative journalism or simply good enterprise stories with high local interest — a far cry from the “Nielsen-induced busy work” of the past.
Call me mister sentimental.
Cue the music and bring up full Andy Williams: “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Yep, it’s that time of year again. The November sweeps.
In the past, stations filled the airwaves with deep-throated fear mongering, energy-pumped teases and secrets to the fountain of youth — all yours, if, and only if, you hang in till the late newscast to see the “special report.”
Stations are still grinding out such pieces during sweeps. But some top-25 stations are spreading their best stuff throughout the year. And the sweeps stories being produced seem to be more substantive, honest-to-goodness investigative journalism or simply good enterprise stories with high local interest.
Some of this has to do with Nielsen’s introduction of Local People Meters. With the advent of LPMs in Orlando, Sacramento, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Portland and Baltimore, every day is judgment day in the top 24 markets.
“We do special reports year round in our late newscast, and they are promoted year round,” says Brad Remington, executive news director of KTVK Phoenix. “We believe we have to build audience 12 months a year and that is true more than ever in an LPM world.”
In a somewhat ironic twist, another factor sweeping away the old sweeps mentality is the lousy newsroom economy. Staffs have been cut and reporters are in short supply. There’s a cold, but positive, realization that sweep stories eat up valuable newsroom resources. So news managers are wisely questioning, more than ever, whether sweeps pieces really drive an audience. Are they worth the cost and effort?
“I see no indication that sweep stories actually enhance viewership on any given day,” says Steve Cohen, news director of KUSI San Diego. “The old sweep mentality forces news directors to marshal limited resources to reach for the holy grail of a ratings pop. The pop is gone. Even the most successful stories on diet, health and political corruption, are now just more of the same for viewers.”
The attitude of Peggy Phillip, news director of KSHB Kansas City, is more typical, however, especially at stations outside the LPM markets. “We do them, but I’m not a big fan,” she says. “It’s Nielsen-induced busy work.”
You don’t have to look back too far to find examples of sweeps specials run amok.
Last November, we had plenty of reports on sure-fire anti-aging creams, the latest and greatest diet and topics that might be better left alone.
Remember the to-do over one of the more infamous sweeps pieces coming out of Los Angeles, KTLA’s special report: “Is Your Betty Ready?”
If you were unsure what a betty is, the opening lines of the report cleared it up: “So what is a betty? Well, put simply, it’s the hair down there.”
Flashing back again to last November, you had to wonder who at WFSB Hartford, Conn., gave the go-ahead to: “Testing Finds Cocaine On Cash … Drugs Found On 4 Out Of 9 Bills.” Did we really need to test money for traces of drugs? Was the station just dusting off some consultant’s old list of to do pieces for the sweeps?
It’s easy — and for some pleasurable — to beat up on consultants. Without a doubt, they can take their share of the blame for where we are in the world of hyped-up sweeps pieces and “Nielsen-induced busy work.”
But in an informal survey of consultants and news directors, I found the consultants taking a more cautious approach to sweeps than the news directors.
First, listen to the consultants:
Jim Willi, principal and senior vice president, AR&D: “I am ambivalent on special reports during sweeps. For the most part — I’d say in 90 percent of the cases — they are not really special enough to viewers to cause them to make a viewing appointment. I have had stations tracking the effect of special reports during sweeps for years and there seems to be little correlation between a sweeps piece and a bump in ratings.
“And, while you may get a bump in a metered market, the chance of getting a bump with a special report in a diary market is very slim because the diary holder would actually have to fill out the diary that night.
“On the other side of the argument, there are a few extremely strong reporters — and stations with strong investigative reputations — that can actually drive a meter upward with a well-marketed special report. Larry Barker at KRQE in Albuquerque certainly drives viewership with his late news investigations during sweeps. WFLA in Tampa has a couple strong investigative reporters — Steve Andrews and Mark Douglas — who can move the needle. But the list is miniscule compared to the number of stations that put on these special reports that frankly aren’t that special.
“It is also extremely difficult to commit the reporter time to do a good number of sweeps pieces in these days of big staff reductions and furloughs. That also make it difficult to have enough feet on the street.
“I tell my stations that you should do no more than eight sweeps pieces — two per week — if you are going to do them at all. Many stations do a lot of special reports and none of them get enough marketing impressions to draw eyeballs, even if they are strong, interesting stories.”
From Joe Rovitto, president, Clemensen & Rovitto: “There’s not a topic in the world that hasn’t been done 10 times over. Most special reports as we know them aren’t special at all. A substantive local report, specific to the community, will attract viewers. It can be investigative or just plain old enterprise. Story selection is key. These stories must be both interesting and important.
“Staffing limits stations to one or two compelling stories a month, but I believe that’s a better strategy than producing 30 superficial stories on topics that are as interesting as last night’s leftovers.
Larry Rickel, president and CEO, Broadcast Image: “I typically recommend to clients that they commit to delivering promotable stories all year round on a regular schedule to set a customer expectation that we deliver valuable “only on” enterprise content whenever viewers tune-in. I don’t believe you can turn on the topical promotion machine just before a book and expect any dramatic results.
“Having said that, I do believe if you are smart in your selection, year round, by establishing a value expectation with your enterprise stories, that you can move the numbers on a specific newscast, especially in meter and people meter markets on any given day. It’s much tougher to quantify this strategy in a diary market.
“When stations do move a number, it because they deliver a compelling combination of valuable customer-focused content promoted creatively with a specific content promise.
“If you integrate this enterprise culture, elevating stories beyond events to the impact and effect of stories into your daily news development systems, then this content is not extra work for anyone. Rather it’s a critical component to building your news brand every day. Often, the most effective promotable stories are enterprise elements on day-of news stories.
“When you make smart content selections inside your brand, then these stories will not only encourage sampling, they will also improve the quality of your daily newscasts.”
Mark Toney, senior vice president at SmithGeiger, declined to comment.
The news directors in my survey say they continue to produce good, promotable pieces for sweeps, but they are also looking to break out of the sweeps routine.
Here’s what they had to say:
Andrew Vrees, news director, WCVB Boston: “We’re doing about four a week, mostly investigative. They give us good, pre-produced, local content that we can promote topically every day. I think they can hold an audience.”
Matthew Hilk, news director, WSMV Nashville: “We have a terrific I-Team and they do produce some longer-form pieces for sweeps, but we focus our investigative efforts on everyday big stories. A sweeps calendar is a good way to boost the station’s image.
“In this market, even some of the biggest special reports have only a moderate impact on that day’s ratings. Building your investigative identity is a long-term project that takes frequency as well as quality.
“That’s why our strategy includes investigations and other targeted special reports in the weeks and months before the rating period — October, April, and so on. Over time, big pieces have value to viewers and ratings because they reinforce that your station is digging up big stories. But, too many stations seem to use them as a four-times-a-year departure from their coverage identity. We don’t.
“Nashville viewers are very focused on very local news, and seem to have little appetite for general trend stories. That’s why you see very few, if any, generic sweeps pieces or gimmick stories in this market.”
Bob Longo, news director, WESH Orlando: “Sweeps pieces are part of our overall strategy here. The LPMs almost dictate we are in sweeps each and every month, but it still appears more weight will be given to November, February and May for awhile.
“In a market like Orlando, there is always a slew of amazing, important and breaking stories and weather that occur each and every day.
“Take all that — the daily news and weather and the produced and thought-out special reports — and mix it together. The smartest play is to be in the promotable piece business year round. We are gravitating toward producing these special pieces twice a week and placing them in our late news.
“Breaking weather and severe weather always drives viewing. Big Story coverage drives viewing. So does breaking news naturally. Promotion is also a big driver, and using that promotion wisely to deliver image messages, upcoming newscast promotion messages and special report coverage is what we are concentrating on.”
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The sweeps report that’s stirring the most controversy so far this November is one from WJLA Washington. In conjunction with the National Breast Cancer Awareness month, the Allbritton station aired a series on how vital it is for women to check themselves regularly for breast cancer. Nothing new about that.
But, as a story in the Washington Post said, the series broke an “unspoken taboo” by showing two women, fully exposed, giving themselves the exam. In addition to stories in the Post and by the Associated Press, the series generated negative feedback from anti-indecency groups.
Several days after the initial airings, WJLA Station Manager Bill Lord has no qualms about the series.
“Our reaction has been 99 percent positive,” he says. “As soon as people saw the story and the way it was portrayed and realized that it was clinical in nature and a demonstration of something that would help and could save lives, the reaction has been universally positive.
“Sometimes it’s not what you do, but how you do it, and we did this in a way that wasn’t sexy or provocative.”
And Lord also makes no apology for the timing of the series — at the front end of sweeps. “We wanted the largest audience possible because we thought it was important,” he says. “This is the time of year where everybody’s in first-run programming. More people are home. Viewership is up. We have promotion opportunities that we don’t normally have. There are a lot of things that played into it. But, honestly, we wanted a lot of people to see the story.”
Let me know what you think, and let me know what you’re seeing in your market this sweep season.
Tom Petner is an award-winning journalist and former local TV news and Internet executive. Most recently, he was editor of the broadcast industry newsletter, ShopTalk, and director of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University. His column, Air Check, is all about local TV news and appears every other Monday in TVNewsCheck. He invites comment and ideas. He can be reached at [email protected]