Used underwear, hospital infections, fat reduction programs so much for People Meters killing off those ratings-grabbing news reports during sweeps month.

L.A.-area television stations show few signs of cutting back on their more attention-getting stories that in the past have cropped up in November, February, May and July the four months when Nielsen Media Research intensely sampled viewers on what they watched. Those results have helped determine advertising rates.

These days, Nielsen's People Meters electronic devices that monitor what shows are being watched all the time eliminate the need for quarterly measurements. Just don't tell that to the news directors.

This month, KCBS (Channel 2) had a special report on upscale lingerie stores accepting returned underwear and putting it back on shelves. (A similar report ran on the network's New York station during the November sweeps period last year.)

Top-rated KNBC (Channel 4) had reporter Chuck Henry going to Arizona for a special report that revealed foreign terrorists could be creeping through the nation's southern borders, along with migrant workers and drugs. And Paul Moyer, NBC's news anchor, warned viewers that commuter trains running between San Diego and Los Angeles could be in the crosshairs of terrorists.

"We do take advantage of promotional opportunities," said Bob Long, KNBC's executive vice president. But he added, "we'll still be doing special reports. We try to do real investigative pieces. We're just not going to be going nuts in sweeps periods."

Long also stressed that he's seeing fewer sensational stories, what he calls "news stunts."

"No one has been able to demonstrate that sweeps stunts really work," he said. "Stations that pursue that strategy over the long haul don't do as well. I'm hopeful (People Meters) will change news programming."

Long was more direct in a memo to KNBC news staffers at the beginning of sweeps.

"Next to becoming profitable, sweeps were the worst thing that ever happened to television news," Long wrote in the memo, which was posted on local media Web log "People meters have weakened the chokehold sweeps had on us, but those thick fingers are on our throats still."

Advertisers long have pushed for more accurate methods to track viewer behavior and demographics than the Nielsen diaries.

"Our goal is make sure our clients get their ad weight," said Sue Johenning, executive vice president and director of local broadcasting for ad purchaser Initiative. "That's what keeps them advertising. With People Meters, the news people will have to find a way to attract viewers every day."

The advent of People Meters has made it possible for Initiative to develop proprietary software that automatically generates an e-mail alert to its clients if the show on which their ads run underperformed the night before.

Such minute-by-minute data-gathering has some speculating that audience-grabbing programming could take place all the time.

"My instinct is that competition for ratings is so murderous that this will make sensational programming year-round rather than isolated in just a few months," said Marty Kaplan, associate dean for programs and planning at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

"With overnight ratings, you can be exquisitely sensitive to the market," he said. "If something is designed to get big numbers, and it's not pulling it, there's a bigger incentive to dump it. The danger is, if you dump something you believe in because nobody's watching it, does it undermine your news judgment?"

Not all TV newspeople dislike the major reports aired during sweeps.
Jacquelin Sonderling, a former producer at KCBS and now at "E True Hollywood Story," said the schedule allowed her to work on serious, long-form TV journalism that is rare in today's world of 30-second stories.

"Working in special assignments made me feel like a journalist again," she said. "They were so well-researched, so well-thought out, and made a difference in peoples' lives. A lot of care went into making sure you had the facts and that people were legitimate sources."

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