So what gives?
TVSpy asked a handful of veteran news directors from around the country to weigh in on the all-important sweeps periods. We asked them about what makes a good story, the pressure reporters may be under to deliver big ratings, and the mistakes stations often make when sweeps roll around. Here’s what they had to say…
Peggy Phillip, KSHB
For sweeps, it’s not “people” we’re trying to attract, it’s “demos.” Kansas City is metered so household ratings are certainly important but we plan our calendar with a focus on stories that will appeal to 25-54 year olds. The last few ratings months, I’ve noticed the heavy influence of Facebook-themed stories and I think that will continue for awhile. Scams, frauds and cons are usually stories that pop. Saving money, keeping the family safe. It’s funny how cyclical sweeps can be. Every three-six years, a bunch of ex-burglars break into homes all across America to demonstrate how quickly they can relieve us of our valuable jewelry and small electronics!
We track growth in the second quarter hour of the late news which is generally where those stories are placed but I think there’s more pressure on the news managers! A reporter won’t get fired for a bad ratings book but news directors do, every year. That said, it’s a team effort. I am lucky to work for Scripps which maintained its commitment to quality journalism through tough economic times and continues to put a premium on investigative stories.
As evidenced by what happened in Minneapolis… you can’t ever start investigating a story with an assumption. We have layers of oversight including an attorney who diligently signs off on every story. Knock on wood, that doesn’t mean we won’t make a mistake but asking questions every step of the way is imperative. We all want to win but if the only motivation for a story is the possibility of “big ratings” then something is inherently wrong. We try to focus on stories that will educate our viewers, are impactful and relevant. When the shock value is off-the-charts, viewers could be turned off. Or, in the case of WCCO, you significantly damage your reputation because the story was wrong.
I think people will tune in for a story that’s relevant to their lives, unavailable elsewhere and well promoted. Exclusivity alone isn’t enough. Sometimes there’s a good reason no other news organization has a story; some stories aren’t worth telling – or watching. Relevance is a subjective judgment, but it’s a good sign when people say, “I’ve always wondered about that,” or, “I know just what he/she means.” And effective promotion promises some specific benefit, without either giving away the entire story or being too coy. It’s a fine line. I think viewers are easily irritated by teases that say, in essence, “We know something you don’t know, but we’re not going to tell you – until Monday at 10!”
I think reporters are under tremendous pressure to produce stories that will drive ratings during sweeps. Anchors are too, and they should be, because they should be reporting during ratings periods. Even in LPM markets, the traditional “books” are still when TV stations get their report cards. They can’t afford to compromise their credibility for fleeting spikes in the numbers, but they also can’t afford to air substantial stories that too few people watch. Minute-by-minute audience data are available and – fairly or not – they are used by news directors and general managers to assess the performance of reporters. That shouldn’t be all the bosses use to gauge the value of journalists, but it’s the currency of television and the price you pay for the privilege of having an on-camera job.
I can’t blame stations for taking some risks during ratings periods. They have to differentiate themselves from the competition, but sweeps are not the time to abandon your brand. You can’t be one thing outside of the “book” and something dramatically different during ratings. Stations have to be at their very best when it matters most – but it’s the work they do the rest of the year that makes that possible.
If the definition of a “sweeps story that works” is one that increases ratings, I would argue that most sweeps stories produced by local television stations do not work. They don’t move the needle.
I analyze ratings every day. Here’s what drives them: consistent execution of superior local news coverage. A strong lead-in is highly desirable (almost every station that ran “Oprah” as a news lead-in enjoyed a #1 newscast in the time period that followed) and trumps stunting.
It’s true that severe weather and breaking news spike ratings, but you can’t schedule either to happen during a ratings period. A well-executed, highly promoted investigative piece can spike ratings, but few of them actually do.
In today’s media environment, a winning station has to produce compelling content every day. At WFTV, we run a modified “sweeps drill” 12 months a year and simply ramp it up during rating periods. We choose stories that reinforce our brand.
Producing so-so content 9 months out of the year and then trotting out special content for the other 3 is not a winning strategy.
The best reason to tune into a good sweeps story is because it’s an in depth look at a high impact topic. The journalism has got to be top notch and the story must be well told.
There is always pressure on reporters to do compelling work but if a supportive culture is provided for your investigative team they will be more willing to take chances and dig for stories that no one else in the market has.
The biggest mistakes stations make is producing stories that might look good in a promo but have no meat on the bones. Viewers should never turn off the TV set feeling like their time has just been wasted after watching a long, promoted piece.
In a follow-up question, TVSpy asked Phillip if WCCO should apologize for its notorious Chinatown dog meat story. She said that, if reports of the mix-up are true, WCCO’s “general manager should issue a statement of apology and retraction that is published on all platforms, running in every newscast for a day.”