If It Bleeds, It Leads

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At local stations, sweeps are big business. In the top 20 markets, as much as half of a station's revenue comes from commercial time sold during the four or five hours of local newscasts aired each day. A 30-second spot on the newscast of a top-rated local station sells for $2,500 to $3,000. By way of comparison, a similar spot on a top 10 network show like Friends may bring in $6,000 to $7,000. However, local stations are limited in the amount of network airtime they can sell, so they concentrate on local newscasts to increase ad revenue. Hyper-aware of the value of sweeps to its bottom line, San Diego's KSWB-TV recently tried to pump up its ratings by sending promotional tapes to Nielsen's local panel members. The move was discovered and Nielsen promptly dumped the station from its sweeps measurement.

Most local stations follow the more accepted practice of producing and heavily promoting sex-and-scandal stories to lure viewers to their newscasts. There's the Miami station that ran an investigation into female college students who work as strippers to pay their tuition. A Pittsburgh station examined the hazards of automatic doors by allowing its consumer reporter to get squashed by one — repeatedly — in a promo. In local TV news, the golden rule of story selection is: “If it bleeds, it leads.� During sweeps months, it's best if the story hemorrhages buckets.

“We're just moments away from a Paddy Chayevsky scene of an execution on TV,� says Joanne Ostrow, TV critic of the Denver Post. “Some of what the news side does during sweeps makes you queasy, but it's all about selling product.� Ostrow notes that many stations select sweeps features based on how they'll come across in provocative promotions which are aired long before the shows themselves. When she arrived in Denver 15 years ago, she remembers a sweeps piece masquerading as a consumer report that investigated pantyhose which run — “a good excuse to show a lot of leg in the promos,� she says. Another sweeps report examined aerobics instructors on steroids — “like this was a pressing national problem,� she says dryly. Recently, Ostrow toured the state-of-the-art facility of Fox's Denver affiliate, KDVR, struck by the floor plan that placed the promotions department only a few steps away from the news department. “That's the wave of the future,� she observes.

Most TV stations play by similar rules to stay competitive, but not everyone likes it. Bob Long, news director of WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., is a longtime critic of sweeps on journalistic grounds. “We're in the news business, not the sweeps business,� he says. “The last thing we should be concerned about on a news-filled day is our promotional strategy.� As he spoke, on the morning of February 8, a dozen reporters and producers filed into his office for a story conference on the day's news lineup. The NBC affiliate and news ratings leader in the nation's capital, WRC-TV, boasts a contingent of 115 staffers to produce 40-1/2 hours of live news programming each week. The assignment sheet for the day featured the words “BOOK — DAY 8� in block letters at the top of the schedule, indicating the eighth day of the monthlong sweeps period.

But other than that reference, the hour-long meeting contained no mention of audience ratings, target demographics, or market competition. Instead, the discussion focused on juggling reporters and technical crews to cover a number of breaking stories: a gunman shot outside the White House, two students murdered at Gallaudet University, discovery of toxic fumes inside the Treasury Department, and the gathering of basketball players for the NBA All-Star game. For Long, a dapper and gravel-voiced news veteran of KNBC, CBS, and Time magazine, ignoring the usual sweeps mania is a conscious decision. “I try not to wave numbers at people in the morning like they're a bunch of junkies playing Lotto,� he says.

Having led the market in ratings for the last 15 sweeps, Long concedes that on some nights lead-in programs like ER and Law & Order help “bring in eyeballs� to his late-night newscasts. Then again, NBC's Dateline is a dud. “We'd need the second coming of Christ for that show to help us out,� he says. But the news director maintains that network stunts during sweeps are worthless to stations that don't offer a quality product year-round. He criticizes other stations that follow a “scorched earth� policy of lavishing money on news features three months of the year while limping along during non-sweeps months. And he saves special disdain for news directors who program tie-in stories based on whatever entertainment precedes the newscast, such as doing an exposé on, say, steroids after a wrestling show.

“Many of my colleagues believe that you can drive numbers to get people into your tent,� says Long. “My concern is that you get people into your tent and there's nothing there. You can fool people for only a while. I believe that he who has the best product wins over time.�

That said, he admits that he “plays the game� as well as anyone, and the ratings prove it (see chart). For the upscale, college-educated news fans of WRC-TV, sweeps stories mean reports on kitchen germs, co-ed teen sleepovers, and the effectiveness of home exercise equipment. A statistician would have fun trying to calculate the odds of both WRC-TV and its sister NBC affiliate in Denver running similarly-timed features on horror stories involving Lasik eye surgery, as happened during the first week of February sweeps. With so many stations now owned by media groups, news directors often share sweeps features that garner high ratings. “I think it's a goofy system but it runs somehow,� says Long. “As a station, you have to sell on those numbers whether they're accurate or not.�

Ironically, the most damning criticism of sweeps may be that they don't always help boost a local station's ratings. Many viewers are loyal to local station news teams. Others have seen enough hidden-camera investigations to ignore yet another report on “Roaches in Your Restaurant� or “Crooked Auto Repair Shops.� “Unless you've got the first-ever sit-down interview with Monica Lewinsky, you're not really going to do that much better than you normally do,� says Dick McWilliams, producer at Extra, the syndicated newsmagazine program. “What used to be a sexy sweeps story is now run-of-the-mill. Viewers have seen it all before.�

McWilliams, who's worked in both serious and tabloid journalism, believes the evolution of TV news has created a jaded viewing public. A decade ago, syndicated newsmagazine A Current Affair paid $500,000 for a five-part series with the Buttafuocos, the Long Island couple who became newsworthy after the wife was shot by her husband's teen lover. Since then, shows like Hard Copy and A Current Affair have died, news budgets have shrunk, and so-called respectable newsmagazines have pushed their way into tabloid territory. This past February, Dateline, 48 Hours, and 60 Minutes all kicked off sweeps with three different jailhouse interviews with alleged murderers. A week later, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the “sexual content� of prime-time programs increased during the past three years from 56 percent to 68 percent.

Despite the system's many drawbacks, many local stations continue to support sweeps for three main reasons: Habit, fear, and money. “You have to do it because everyone else is scared not to do it,� explains Extra's McWilliams. “There's a great pressure to play the game. And if you gamble with ad sales and lose, you're out of a job.�

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