TV employs fewer gimmicks during 'sweeps'
By Maria Sciullo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- Nov. 25, 2013
Wednesday is the last official day of the November TV “sweeps” month — that period that comes four times a year when local stations traditionally blast viewers with all sorts of sensational teasers, gotcha stories and wasteful tax dollar reports, all to boost ratings to set advertising rates.
But you may have noticed that the reports recently have not been quite as crazy as they have been in the past.
“My sort of general observation, and I have no data to back this up, but I think sweeps pieces have, in many cases, gotten a little less nutty in the past 10 years,” said Chris Tuohy, a former executive news producer and chair of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism.
“For a while, you could always count on the ’stranger danger’ pieces, and the hotel horrors.”
Paul Greeley, who writes about local television news and its marketing for TVNewsCheck.com, agreed. “I have not seen too many outrageous stories this particular ratings period as I have in the past, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
(Nonetheless: we interrupt this story to bring you a special report from KIVI in Boise, Idaho. It recently completed a three-part story about Teal Swan, a woman who claims to have been the victim of “Satanic ritual abuse.” Ms. Swan also claims to have witnessed the ritual deaths of more than a half-dozen children and says she reported this to Utah authorities in 2005.)
Yet the general softening of new reports during the “sweeps” periods is perhaps “a nod to how the audience has become more smart and sophisticated, and the same tricks won’t work as maybe they did in years past,” said Stephen Kraycik, a former news manager and producer, now serving as director of student television and online operations at Penn State University.
Nielsen figures, which are used during sweeps periods to help set advertising rates, began measuring audiences in the 1950s, through a combination of monitoring TV sets and families keeping paper diaries. The introduction of “local people meters” — clickable little boxes — in 1987 meant that ratings could be assessed overnight, instead of weekly. In 2009 Pittsburgh stations began getting demographic ratings overnight year-round. This basically negated the need for any special months devoted to sweeps since the demographic data historically gathered in sweeps is now available daily.
It’s still an inexact science, but one that likely has made a difference in local stations running TV news sweeps packages. Viewers will note one sign of a sweeps ratings period’s importance: the on-air talent isn’t allowed to take a vacation.
“We don’t really approach stories differently inside a [sweeps period] book as opposed to outside a book,” said Justin Antoniotti, WTAE-TV news director. “We get ratings every day of the year, so that measurement system is in place whether we’re inside a book or not.”
Indeed, a survey of local newscasts during this latest Oct. 30-Nov. 26 sweeps period turned up the usual menu of animal and “your children’s welfare” features, health and consumer fare. WTAE recently ran a feature about a York County Great Dane that had given birth to 19 puppies.
At the WTAE site, there was a link to the dog’s owner for anyone wanting to buy one, for $850. The day after the Nov. 18 feature ran on television, the puppy video was the third most popular on the site.
But there was also a Paul Van Osdol report on a $365,000 project to replace railroad track in Turtle Creek. As part of the Greensburg Pike bridge project, the “railroad to nowhere” was being touted as a waste of tax dollars.
KDKA-TV news director Anne Linaberger said the station strives to produce “promote-able” content for every newscast, so the line between traditional sweeps stories and everyday features is blurred.
“Not only do we [now] know what our household ratings are, but our demographic ratings as well .... it’s a 52-week-a-year job.”
Still, it’s hardly an accident that a two-part story titled “Patrice’s Secret” aired at the start of the recent ratings period. Ms. Linaberger said former longtime KDKA news anchor Patrice King Brown approached reporter and friend Lynn Hayes-Freeland last month and wanted to finally reveal why she retired in 2011.
The report showed Ms. Brown and her husband, Paul Nemiroff, at home in California. They talked about the life-threatening illness that forced him to leave the cold Northeast climate.
“It did well, and we got a lot of good feedback about it because I think a lot people are interested in her and what she’s up to,” said Ms. Linaberger. “But if she’d come to us in September, we would have done it then.”
Features such as WTAE’s “Action News Investigates” and WPXI’s “Target11” are catchy ways of promoting content. Mr. Tuohy said he’s observed a rise in legitimate investigative pieces, and “that’s something you can feel good about.”
Sometimes, however, the promos for stories are more sizzle than steak.
“For a promo to be effective, the story has to be effective,” said Mr. Kraycik, the Penn State student TV director.
Creative services work with the news side of a station to create an effective promotion campaign. Generally, these promos are on the mark, but the occasional misleading one slips through.
“Sometimes what you would get back, we’d look at it as a news director or manager and say, ‘Wow, this has very little to do with the story we actually produced.”
KDKA ran a promo warning that the switch from daylight saving time could be bad for kids’ health. The actual story turned out to be rather routine: a British study noted that children having less daylight for play might lead to their sitting around, inactive, for a short time.
“I think it really takes both of those departments working together to come up with a promo that is not trying to scare the pants off of people, but legitimately is trying to get them to watch,” Mr. Kraycik said.
“The better the content, the less need there is for over-the-top promotion. Maybe that’s a pie-in-the-sky view of things, but I’d like to think it’s true,” Mr. Tuohy said.
TVNewsCheck’s Mr. Greeley said that when it comes to the modern approach to gauging viewers’ interest, he has a motto: “Sweeps aren’t won during ratings periods, they’re only measured then.”
Still, we probably have not seen the last of the sensational stories.