Despite Local Push, Sweeps Hinge on Network Viewers

By CLAUDIA PESCHIUTTA
Staff Reporter

Anthrax, cheerleaders, Cher, sex parties

They all found their way onto local television news during November sweeps. But for all the time and effort Los Angeles stations put into developing sexy and attention-grabbing stories to boost their numbers, most broadcasts saw little change in their standings.

KNBC-TV Channel 4 came out touting its 22nd consecutive ratings win at 11 p.m. The king of the afternoon newscasts once again was KABC-TV Channel 7. KMEX-TV Channel 34 remained No. 1 among the city's Spanish-language stations

The consistent rankings point to the fact that local news ratings are decided, in large part, by "lead-ins," the shows that air before a broadcast. That's because keeping an audience is easier than getting people to change channels for the news

A strong lead-in gives the winners another reason to brag. For the losers, a weak lead-in can serve as a scapegoat for low ratings

"If you have a good lead-in, people are just going to stay with the news," said Joe Saltzman, assistant dean of USC's Annenberg School. "Sometimes you don't have to have the best news show, you have to have the best lead-in." Take KCBS-TV Channel 2's 11 p.m. news, which traditionally has ended up in third place. That newscast averaged a 4.2 rating on weekdays during sweeps, coming in behind KNBC's 7.6 and KABC's 5.9. But the night KCBS aired "The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers" special, which earned a 14.0 rating, KCBS's 11 p.m. broadcast jumped to a 7.4

"The stronger the network lead-in, it really does help your local news," said David Woodcock, vice president and general manager of KCBS

KNBC's 11 p.m. news long has benefited from the high-rated network shows that air before it, such as "ER" and "Law & Order." During sweeps, KNBC's weekday primetime block averaged a 10.2 rating, vs. a 7.0 for KABC. But on Sundays, when ABC airs its popular drama "The Practice," the 11 p.m. news on its L.A. affiliate has consistently climbed to No. 1 in the market

"Lead-in is of paramount importance at 11 o'clock at night because that's not a big time for tune in," said Arnold J. Kleiner, president and general manager of KABC. "Unless you hate the news that's coming on after that, you'll stay for it and watch whatever it is." In trying to keep lead-in audiences from changing channels or turning off their sets, local stations often let a particular show's viewers influence the content and tone of their newscasts. While the big stories of the day don't change much from channel to channel, the way they're promoted and their placement in a newscast are sometimes tailored to fit the tastes of a lead-in show's demographics, as are feature and enterprise pieces

"We do all kinds of research on who these people are watching those (lead-in) shows, what they like," said KNBC News Director Kimberly Godwin. "You want to program to that audience or, at least, approach stories from an angle that would impact or affect them." There is a responsible way to do this but some local newscasts place too much importance on their lead-in shows, said Sylvia Teague, a former executive producer at KCBS and managing editor at KCAL-TV Channel 9

"The stories that are being selected are, in many cases, very salacious and would not be on except for trying to attract the audience that they perceive as their lead-in audience," she said. "Those kinds of stories squeeze out legitimate news stories." Keeping that audience is most important during sweeps, one of the semiannual periods when viewership is tracked in order to determine future advertising rates

In talking about stories KCOP-TV Channel 13 would run during the November sweeps, News Director Larry Perret said last month that a feature about the rising popularity of black culture, titled "The Black Thing," was planned for a newscast following the station's Monday night line-up of shows starring African-American actors. The night KCBS ran the Carol Burnett special, the 11 p.m. news featured an interview with Tim Conway's son

Lead-in shows appear to have the most influence on nighttime newscasts. While they help determine ratings for afternoon news, many of the viewers who watch those broadcasts have just tuned in. In the afternoons, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" has kept KABC at No. 1 while KNBC has been held back by the "Rosie O'Donnell Show," which suffered its lowest ratings ever in a major sweeps period last month

Lead-in shows obviously have little impact on morning news but the programs that come after those early broadcasts appear to affect the ratings. KNBC's "Today In L.A.," which airs before NBC's "Today Show," repeatedly has taken the top spot in the 6 a.m. time slot. But "Today In L.A." managed to hold on to its lead in November, despite the fact that ABC's "Good Morning America" beat out the "Today Show." While a popular lead-in provides a major edge in the ratings race, stations also have to worry about keeping a respectable portion of that audience

"People do look at viewer retention and they try really hard to pull those people into a newscast," Teague said. "There's a real sense that you're not doing everything you can if you're losing a big chunk of those people."

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