Friday, March 1, 2013

TV News & Sweeps

By:  Bill Holmes

Here we are at the end of February sweeps for the TV networks. Sweeps are the thrice yearly periods when Nielson and the other TV rating agencies do extra polling and analysis of our viewing habits. These sweep periods occur in February, May and November. The extra effort ratings are used by the networks and local stations to set their advertising rates for the next few months. Sweeps also bring out the best and worst in the networks and local stations.

The sweeps don't mean quite as much to local stations in a big TV market like DFW or NYC or LA. That doesn't stop them from playing the game. Big market areas are measured daily (overnight ratings) by various means all year. Smaller markets depend more on the sweep numbers. National networks get a more complete count of total viewership as opposed to just the major markets. So of course the more complete counting of eyes brings out more intense competition.

The good part of sweeps is that the networks air first run episodes of their hit series and tend to show specials or movies in place of their bad shows. There may be a cliffhanger or two during the month.  Series crossover episodes are a good possibility. It's the time of year when the NCIS guys from Washington show up to help the NCIS: Los Angeles team. A CSI: NY cop may track a criminal to Las Vegas because they can't go to Miami this season, Horatio Caine and his sunglasses got canceled. The bad part is that many of those specials and most news shows are sensationalized. All are over hyped.

Some of the worst offenders are the local 10:00 PM, 11:00 in the east, news broadcasts. The investigative reporters we haven't seen in weeks are suddenly all over the screen with shocking findings. There are promos all during the day, teasers during the 5:00 and 6:00 news broadcasts all with a promise of life changing information. If you take these reports to heart, you will never leave your house again. There are dangers everywhere. Restaurants, grocery stores, packing houses and farmers are trying to kill us. Every merchant is trying to cheat us and every service provider who comes to our house will come back later to burglarize your home.

I'm not denying that some of these investigative reports provide useful information. There are bad guys out there and some companies do not provide safe products or the service they promised. What bothers me is the sensationalism of the reports and the constant teases during the day. The promos have compelling video and doomsday voice overs. The hype is outrageous and doesn't belong in a news organization. The big payoff is usually far from life changing.

One recent story on a local station was about contamination on drink cans. They included soda and energy drinks. I didn't see any of the most important canned beverage, beer. There were sensationalized promos for a couple of days. The reporters bought random canned beverages for the test. There was the required swabbing of the can tops by gloved laboratory professionals. The swabs were dramatically rubbed on to culture dishes. The samples were grown in a professional lab with professional lab employees. They were analyzed by professional scientists. When checked, the culture dishes were full of bacteria. We had proof of the bacteria because an ultraviolet light was shined on the culture dishes and it glowed brilliantly. There was a multipage lab report, held up by the reporter, to go with the ultraviolet pictures. Very dramatic and convincing unless you know that bacteria is everywhere. In the last few seconds of the report, there was a statement from a medical doctor saying that the bacteria found was not dangerous to most people. This looked suspiciously to me like a cover their ass statement to avoid any legal actions by the beverage companies.  After that last brief statement that negated most of the manufactured crisis the investigative reporter had a little happy talk with the anchors. They made comments about how gross it all was and of course ignored the doctor's comments that torpedoed the story. Oh, the solution to this national crisis was to rinse off the top of the can. Who would have ever thought of that without this gripping news report? I should point out that the investigative reporters at this station have recently been named the iTeam. Expect a lawsuit from Apple any day now.

The local news outlets are not the only purveyors of this hype. 60 Minutes, 20/20, Dateline, Rock Center and any other news magazine I missed tend to rev it up a gear. The star anchors of the network evening news programs don't take nights off during sweep months.

Not being a TV marketing genius I can't tell you if these bait and switch stories work to pump up the ratings. I don't know if people care that Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams or Scott Pelley, rather than a substitute, is at the anchor desk for a full month. I do know that new episodes of entertainment programs I usually watch will increase my likelihood of viewing.

With today's technology, it seems archaic that we still have sweep months. As mentioned, major markets like D/FW are measured every day. Those results are available the next day. Many smaller markets ratings are available within a week. Why would an advertiser pay rates based on a one month sample when the networks and stations stack the deck and are putting their best stuff on the air? Those viewer numbers have to be greater than the average over the course of a season. Why are November, February and May more important than October, January and April?

Other changes in the landscape are the use of DVRs and that cable networks don't follow the normal September to May TV schedule. New shows and series are liable to pop up at any time on the calendar. They don't seem to be particularly concerned about sweeps. With a DVR that special sweeps program in February may not be watched until April and certainly not on the same day of the week or time it originally aired. Bet you'll skip over the commercials too.

The second point of this blog is how do you choose which news to watch? I'm mostly talking about the morning (5:00 to 9:00 AM) and evening (5:00 to 6:30 and 10:00 PM) broadcast news. The cable news stations are far too partisan for this debate.

I live in the Fort Worth-Dallas area, the number five TV market, so I have a better choice of news than many. I have often been amazed at how bad the local news programs are when I travel. DFW has all the usual ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC affiliates plus some independent and Spanish language stations. Over 25 plus years here my primary local news station preference has changed a few times. Anchors change and so do news directors and marketing gurus.

I think the most important factor in local news is who are the people delivering the news, weather and sports. It's rare when all three are your favorite but if it happens, you are hooked. It also depends on the lead in and lead out programs. For years one local station had a huge rating advantage at 5:00 because the news followed Oprah. The CBS affiliate has an advantage now at 10:00 because of the strong CBS prime time lineup.

Still, anchors matter. I used to watch one local early morning news program almost exclusively. They changed the weather person, not as good but OK. They changed one of the news anchors, OK. Another weather and another anchor change. Then they changed the traffic reporter and weather person again. Well, to me the new weather guy is unwatchable and the traffic reports are boring. Changed stations and there was the guy that got fired from my former favorite station. He and his co-anchor are good, the weather guy is watchable and the traffic reporter is both competent and attractive. It may also help that it leads into the CBS This Morning show which is now my preferred network morning show. I like Charlie and Nora although the main reason I watch is because it's more news oriented. I don't really care to watch segments on fashion or makeovers or cooking at 7:00. I also can't stand to watch or listen to Savannah Guthrie.

At 5:00, 6:00 and 10:00 PM it's a little more difficult. In my opinion, three of the four local newscasts are OK. Unfortunately, I think the anchors are better and have more integrity than their bosses. I see them wince sometimes while reporting a story. All three of the news anchor pairs are competent, the weather guys OK and the sports guys are good. The field reporters are OK too for the most part. I'd like to be completely objective in my news choices but since they all report the same stuff does it really matter? I usually watch one station at 5:00 and a different one at 6:00 just to get some contrast. The local CBS affiliate usually gets the nod at 10:00 because I'm more likely to be watching a CBS prime time program and because it leads into Letterman. I'll also occasionally watch the Fox newscast (the local affiliate, not Fox News Channel) at 9:00 PM.

I hate the intrusion of sweeps and marketing and hype into TV news. I don't like it much in the network prime time shows either although that is harmless. As cable channels with their unconventional seasons increase we may soon see the end of sweeps as we know it. There is also the new paradigm introduced by Netflix. They released the whole season, 13 episodes, of House of Cards at one time. You can watch it one episode at a time, a 13 hour marathon or any other combination.

My guess is that in a few years most media content will be consumed on-demand via the internet. There will be no need for these occasional sweep spikes in content. Every program will be tracked at the moment of download or consumption.   

If you want to promo and hype a future TV series or special or movie that's OK. If you have news that is important and informational to the public then report it. Any news that the networks or local stations promo and delay is not that important. If it was really important, every station would be either breaking into normal programming or leading their next newscast with the story. Remember, being first with the story is almost as important as being accurate to most news organizations.

I don't remember ever seeing a promo for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite or the Huntley-Brinkley Report. I also don't remember poorly researched sensationalized fluff reports during sweeps. I know times change and many people no longer watch TV news and those that do probably already know the big stories of the day. They have seen it on the internet.

Choose your own favorite news source, be it TV, internet, newspaper or town crier, but please choose a source or two or twelve. We all need to be informed about our world. It's also a good idea to get at least a second opinion or slant on the news. If you're a Fox News fan, maybe watch a little MSNBC or vice versa. It can be painful but it may make you stop and think about an issue rather than just nodding approval. There is even some real news value in the Daily Show and Colbert Report or a late night talk show monologue. Don't be afraid to check out that story that supports your beliefs in or one of the other debunking websites. Be curious, be skeptical, be informed. Enjoy all the reruns and substitute anchors in March too. Just wait, the anchors, investigative reporters, new episodes and more hype will be back in May.


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