Hype and Tripe
Local TV stations skip the sex, go for the tornadoes
by Karla Robinson

So, how was it for you?

Sweeps - that time when TV stations pull out all the stops to get the highest ratings in time to recalculate their ad rates - has mercifully passed. All over but the brain cell body count.

But, hey, cheer up!

Maybe sending a local TV anchor out after tornadoes was silly and the cancer stories were shameless, but we TV vets have seen worse. Much worse.

Bruce Carter, news director at WLEX, says: "If you travel this country during a sweeps period, and watch local news coverage, you'd think the world had come unglued, not that we're enjoying the largest peacetime economic recovery ever. Today's snapshot sells: Could you be at risk? Is your life in danger? Is your school safe? Answer: after all the hype, No, No, and Yes! You're left with the impression that everything's going to hell, and that's the real disservice that our industry is doing."

In Lexington, stations are vying for over $50 million a year in advertising, and they all say that they've learned that hype is not the way to go. Well, it may not be "no holds barred" anymore, but local news still puts on quite a show during sweeps.

Local news:

The canary in the coal mine?

Why is local news the first sign that sweeps are upon us? Susie Hampton, advertising and marketing director for Freedom Dodge in Lexington, explains: "The heaviest local advertising comes in news, because it's the highest rated local programming that's affordable for local advertisers to buy."

And stations work hard to make sure those newscasts are watched during the four sweeps periods every year-February, May, July and November. Local stations around the country have been known to give away houses, cars and cash prizes.

All that in addition to the usual tactic of deploying those "shocking" stories that only the National Enquirer could love.

We're Number Two!

The ratings contest in Lexington is a race for second place.

WKYT, who market their news as "27Newsfirst," has been in the number one spot for nearly 25 years, according to 27's news director Jim Ogle. Ogle reports, "In February, for the 6:00 pm newscast, we were at a 12 [rating]; the other two stations were at a 5, so combined they don't even equal us."

The "other two" stations in the market, WLEX Channel 18 (known as LEX 18 News), and WTVQ Channel 36 (billed as Newschannel36), have been playing catch-up for a very long time.

WDKY Channel 56, or Fox56 News as its newscasts are known, is taking the backroads to a better ratings spot. The show airs at 10:00 pm., in direct competition with no other news in this market.

Now you know the players, what'd they do this May?

On three randomly selected nights of news programming, all stations piously denied peddling "hype," but there were still plenty of the scary, sappy, and just plain silly material that has got to make you proud to be an American.

LEX 18 News: The Big, Big, Big, REALLY Big Story

When LEX 18 News redesigned its newscast earlier this year, one of the more significant changes made was the addition of something called "The Big Story."

This "big story" usually leads off each newscast, whether at 5:00 pm or 11:00 pm. Though LEX 18 news director Bruce Carter decries the hype he sees in newscasts around the country this time of year, "The Big Story" is a prime offender.

Sometimes, LEX 18 News makes a story "the big story" for the wrong reasons. For example, May 4, a reporter got "exclusive" video of a reunion between a frantic, sobbing mother and her child, thought to be missing. Police and neighbors had been searching for the child for hours, and the tearful meeting was caught on tape by Channel 18.

The teaser for the story gave audiences to believe the situation was dire (like perhaps the child had been kidnapped or something), but the reporter offered no explanation of where the child had disappeared to for so long, nor did he try to derive a larger lesson from the story about after-school safety for children. All flash, no substance.

For the sweeps period, LEX 18 News did not air a five-part series on prostitution or gambling or other controversial topics-but not out of any decorous sense of restraint. "People are very busy these days, and it's hard for people to commit to watching two to three nights in a row," said Carter.

Instead, Carter says that during sweeps, the station focuses on single story investigations that "involve significantly more work and that go above the usual stories we do for every day."

As an example, he points to the May 16th story "Prescription Privacy," which showed the ease with which people can walk into a pharmacy and acquire a list of prescriptions taken by a perfect stranger.

One story Carter didn't take special pains to point out was May 18's "Tornado Chasers," a story about adventurous people who sign up for jaunts as a stormchaser, spending their days traveling throughout the plains states looking for severe weather, especially tornadoes.

The station hyped this story for several days, and then had technical troubles with the tape the night it aired. In the end, reporter John Wesley Brett and his cameraman followed the group around for four days, putting 4,000 miles on their rental car, and they never saw one tornado. What a waste of time, money, and promotion.

So how does it all stack up?

Hype value: despite Carter's statements to the contrary, the "Big Story" element does have a high hype value. Local content: tornado chasing aside, relatively high. This is the only newscast in town with a special segment called "Covering Kentucky," with reports from around the state. The newscast does cover national news of importance, but it always places it later in the newscast. And LEX 18 News does have the best graphics in town, which helps to engage the viewer and provide additional information (like websites, phone numbers, and detailed weather maps during storms).

Newschannel 36 On Your (Local) Side

The anti-hype mantra is repeated by Newschannel 36 news director Jay Mitchell; his station also doesn't focus on multi-part series during sweeps. Instead, Mitchell sometimes selects an overriding theme for the entire month.

Last May, it was family issues, so the station covered stories on truancy and teen smoking. This year, Mitchell didn't select a particular issue, but focused attention on the weather (given the ongoing drought situation) and the Kentucky Derby, which occurred early in the sweeps period for the station.

And then there's Mitchell's "local angle" fetish.

"Nothing is more important than local weather and local news. The thing we can provide best to our viewers is local stories. We have to be hyperlocal," Mitchell said.

This May, Newschannel36 never included a story in the first block of the newscast without the local angle prominently featured. Jay Mitchell says that the special stories Newschannel36 completed for sweeps were all intensely local. Mitchell points to two examples: "Alexa [Gromko, evening news anchor] has a story on local kids who are dealing with parents with cancer; and John Lindgren has a story on Shriner's Hospital here in Lexington-a very personal story on kids who come from all over the world to our Shriner's Hospital for treatment."

Hype value: perhaps the lowest of all stations in town. Notwithstanding Lindgren's elephant ride at the Shriner's circus to the contrary, he and Alexa Gromko rarely oversell the stories they're telling.

Local coverage: high, though the station doesn't ignore national stories of importance. Along with LEX 18 News, this station is one of only two with a specific segment covering national stories, which, again, plays later in the newscast.

The one significant problem this newscast faces is an embarrassing frequency of spelling and grammatical errors in its graphics and broadcast. In just the three nights reviewed for this story, the program misspelled the word "immediately" (minus the second "e") in a graphic, misspelled George Foreman's last name (also missing the "e"), mispronounced Celtic music as if the musicians played basketball in Boston, and mispronounced Canadian province Ontario as On-tah-rio. Small mistakes, maybe, but they are very distracting and unprofessional.

27Newsfirst: Stay the Course

Jim Ogle, news director at WKYT, says that 27Newsfirst's goal for this sweeps period is simply to maintain their market leadership. "We put no focus on hype."

Rather, Ogle says the station has "a very deliberate mixture of content in each of our newscasts: the most important stories that affect the audience, the most interesting stuff, 'water cooler stuff', and the stuff that some people call 'news you can use.'"

Some of the ways 27Newsfirst distinguishes itself to viewers are interesting. For example, "first" is a favorite catch word at WKYT. Newsfirst, Healthfirst, Moneyfirst. One charitable explanation for all the "firsts" is that the station has been the market leader for so many years.

The station is hustling to put the "local" in the local news. The news programs reviewed in this sweeps period usually began with a series of local stories, or national stories with a focus on the local angle. For example, stories on the Mother's Day "Million Mom March" always included local mothers who were attending the march. Stories on the "I Love You" virus detailed the effects of the virus on the Fayette County attorney's office and the University of Kentucky campus.

But at the same time 27Newsfirst is beating its chest over its focus on local material, it does air a lot of video that originates from outside the market. Stories like the H&R Block Money reports or the medical report on how to survive a medical emergency when you're alone are packaged goods that are sold all over the country. Local stations personalize the stories by adding their own reporter's voice-overs and the station's own graphics to the package.

So, hype value: low. Local content: medium. Are the shows informative and interesting? Yes, but it's no surprise that 27Newsfirst grabs the lion's share of the viewers aged 50 and over.

FOX 56: All alone at 10:00

Of all the stations, you would think the Fox affiliate, home of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? and World's Scariest, Bloodiest, Most Violent Animal Attacks XXXIV would be a slobbering, out-of-control beast by sweeps week.

But you'd be wrong.

Fox56 partners with the serious and dignified WKYT in producing the Fox56 newscast; the newscast is produced at Channel 27's studios, and sent to the Fox56 broadcast towers nightly at 10:00 pm..

This partnership means WDKY's 10:00 news faces an interesting conundrum. Hampton explains: "WDKY portrays its news as a hipper, jazzier alternative to the other stations, but its time slot is geared toward an older audience, that's going to bed earlier and getting up at 5:00 am or 6:00 am for work."

Since CBS' prime time programs tend to appeal most to older viewers (who might also be the ones who want to go to bed earlier), Channel 27 must be a little conflicted about producing that newscast for a competitor, and giving their audience an opportunity to abandon the 10:00 pm hour of prime time on CBS in favor of the cross-town competitor.

In the face-off between "gettin' jiggy wit it" and "just getting on with it so we can go to bed," the latter usually wins.

Fox56's 10:00 News distinguishes itself from the 27Newsfirst broadcast primarily through the presence of anchor Marvin Bartlett, who is an employee of Fox56 and appears exclusively on that station.

Much of the two broadcasts is the same: a comparison of several nights of programming during May reveals the two stations use the same video to edit together stories, and some of the same scripts are used. Fox56 uses different graphics, however, and the station does air some stories that do not appear on 27Newsfirst (and vice versa).

Looking at one night's newscasts, for example, the two stations shared nearly all the local stories, though Fox56 added a story filed by a national reporter for the Fox network, as well as a segment entitled "News Notes," which wraps up the major stories from around the world.

Ogle says the 10:00 news is geared toward the viewer who may not see another news program all day, so the goal is to provide a comprehensive picture of all the day's events, both locally and nationally.

Anchors do have to watch it, though; one night, the sports anchor started to read a story that had been pulled from the Fox56 news line-up, but was still on-tap for 27Newsfirst.

So, hype value: low. Local content: relatively high. Is it informative and interesting? The information is all there, and Fox56 does its best to put a high gloss on the program, which must be hard when the bulk of the information comes from stodgy old 27.

Adding It All Up

So, will this sweeps month mean any changes in the pecking order of Lexington TV news ratings? Hampton notes news viewers in the Lexington market tend to be extremely loyal to one station or another. "People are loyal to their newscasts and their newscasters-people will say they're an Alexa Gromko fan, or a Melanie Glasscock fan, or a Barbara Bailey fan, and they watch that station every night."

If a change occurs, only the Nielsens will tell, when the May ratings books come out sometime in June.

. Can you trust the ratings?

If the ratings were based on my Aunt Zelda's viewing patterns, QVC, Rosie O'Donnell, and Touched by an Angel ("it gives me chills") would be the top programs.

The "Nielsen families," whose viewing is measured for the TV ratings, are based on the TV habits of people like her, and like you and me-hopefully, people who do a good job of representing everyone in Lexington.

But the system isn't foolproof. People in the media business in Lexington have a lot to say about the Nielsen ratings, and most of their commentary isn't positive.

When one thinks of television ratings, Nielsen is the name that comes to mind. Nielsen Media Research has been conducting TV ratings in one form or another for over 40 years, according to their website,

The Nielsen Company collects sweeps ratings in Lexington through the use of diaries. The lucky "Nielsen families" are randomly selected by the Nielsen company to represent all of Lexington's television viewers. Viewers are asked to write down every television program they watch for a whole week, including the title of the show, the channel's number and call letters, and the time it was watched. When the diary is completed, it is returned to Nielsen for processing. The data is summarized into ratings numbers published in Nielsen's ratings books, which are distributed to stations and advertisers.

The diary method certainly has its critics. "I don't think it works for the entire market in general. I think it's a terrible way of measuring what people are watching and who is watching. It's too difficult to fill out the diaries-it's asking a lot of the viewer," said Bruce Carter, the news director at WLEX.

Besides the inevitable poor handwriting and empty pages where viewers forget to write down what they watched, it's common for someone to give one station's call letters and another's channel number, leaving it up to Nielsen to guess which "news" the viewer actually watched.

Charley Brough, associate media director for Meridian Communications in Lexington, agrees, and notes that the willingness of respondents to participate in the ratings has declined significantly over the last few years. "There's several reasons for it: people are too busy to fill out the diary or they resent it as an invasion of privacy," Brough said.

Jim Ogle of Channel 27 thinks "a lot of people fill out diaries at the end of the week, rather than night by night, so the night-by-night ratings might not be particularly accurate."

And even the people who do agree to participate in the diary samples don't always follow through. According to Nielsen's February, 2000 ratings book, 2713 households were initially designated as the sample, but only 771 usable diaries (or 28 percent) were returned.

Brough sees many other problems with the diary system.

"Sometimes people write down what they 'should' be watching as opposed to what they really watch," he said. "And young people, especially young males, don't want to fill out a diary." Plus, with the common practice of using a remote control to flip around from station to station, Brough notes, the diaries aren't particularly good at recording "channel hopping," or shorter periods of viewing that occur to some stations.

It's unlikely a guy flipping between The Playboy Channel and Skinemaum, Cinemax, trying to find the best action, is going to write down each click of the remote. More than likely, something other than a pencil is in his hand.

Not surprisingly, 27Newsfirst's Jim Ogle - whose station is kicking ass under the current system - is more sanguine about the diary system. "On one particular night, does it accurately measure, down to the one thousand viewers, how many viewers you have? Probably not," Ogle said. But over time, it really does reinforce the general position of our station. I'm confident, based on the anecdotal information I get from people, that we are the market leader."

Advertisers are hip to the fact that local stations do special investigative reports and other features only during sweeps periods, and they discount the ratings for this very reason.

Susie Hampton, who's been buying ad time for Freedom Dodge for five years, describes her view of the ratings as "jaded" so she doesn't just consider the ratings when she's buying advertising for her company. Hampton says her firm does pay attention to the ratings, "but we also pay attention to our knowledge of the market, anecdotal information, and station loyalty."

Hampton reports, Lexington viewers tend to be loyal to one station or another: "You can't buy ad time strictly on Channel 27 being number one, because there are people who don't watch Channel 27's news," she said. To reach as many viewers as possible, Hampton places ads on all the local stations.

What does the future hold for sweeps?

So, with advertisers and many broadcasters alike dissatisfied with the system, what does the future hold for measuring TV ratings? Until Nielsen can implant a chip in everyone's brain, ratings firms are testing several other solutions.

Charley Brough of Meridian Communications says that the Arbitron Company, who got out of the TV ratings business in the United States in 1993, has been testing a new measurement device in England. The unit is the size of a pager, and is carried around by the participant wherever she goes. "If Ch. 27 were in London, it would be sending out a hidden signal that they are broadcasting Oprah right now at 4:00," he explained. "The meter assumes that if you can receive the signal, you are watching the program. The signal is embedded in the program, and could even be picked up from a videotape. The data is stored in the unit, which is placed in a recharger at night; the data are then downloaded to Arbitron."

Radio stations embed a signal in their programming as well. This method has a lot of positives, from the advertiser's perspective. It is person-based, not household based, so no one has to fill out a diary.

And Brough notes that advertisers would be very interested in observing the media habits of one particular person throughout the day. For example, you could discover that "an ER watcher also listens to WMXL radio, or a 27Newsfirst viewer listens to WVLK." That way, the advertiser could be more focused about where the money is spent to reach certain types of viewers.

A particular problem that Nielsen has never solved is what's called "out of home viewing." Students who live in dorms at UK, Transy or Georgetown campuses, or who watch basketball games in bars, have no chance of being measured by Nielsen. A portable device like Arbitron's would handle viewing (and listening) wherever it took place-the Two Keys Tavern, the dorm room, the student center, or the airport.

Of course, this device is in the testing phase, and won't go into extensive use in the U.S. unless stations and advertisers are willing to pay for it.

Larger U.S. television markets (like Louisville and Cincinnati) are "metered" by Nielsen; a select sample of 200-300 homes are wired with devices hooked up to each TV set in the house. The meters monitor all viewing, and then download the data to Nielsen over phone lines each day. Rumors have persisted that Lexington will soon be metered, but this community isn't on Nielsen's to-be-metered schedule at this time.

Barring some significant event (like local stations rising up in revolt and demanding to be metered), the diary method will probably be used in Lexington for the foreseeable future.