Hype Takes a Hit

You've seen the stories: lethal germs on your doorknob, secrets of child abductors, what your nail salon operator won't tell you, sleeping through smoke alarms, the deadly mold in your house, cell phones and cancer, or, yikes! your thong and your mental health.

Such stories show up like the seasons on local TV news -- but only during the months of February, May, July, and November, the so-called sweeps periods, during which Nielsen Media Research measures the audiences of TV stations and cable systems in all 210 markets across the U.S. The idea is to schedule shock-and-awe stories during those four months to boost ratings for those periods and thus raise advertising rates and profits. Everybody, inside the industry and out, knows that this system is a fraud: advertisers are cheated, and the public is either frightened out of its wits by alarmist, hair-raising news features, or inured to real news, or both. "It's a horrible way to do our business," says Forrest Carr, news director of WFLA in Tampa, Florida. "Completely artificial. Cheap ratings ploys, sensationalism, turning handsprings during those four months." Many Americans are fear-ridden, according to Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, in his book The Culture of Fear. He cites evidence that news media are both the cause of people's fears and the reason they're convinced those fears are valid.

But don't despair! Help has arrived. Nielsen is rolling out a new process for measuring local TV audiences that will abolish sweeps periods in the markets where it is used. Boston has had it since January 2002. Before the year is out Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York will have signed on. The other top ten cities in the U.S. -- Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and Dallas-Ft. Worth -- will get it during the next few years.

The secret weapon? A streamlined iteration of the People Meter that provides instantaneous, continuous ratings and demographics -- every single day all year round, instead of just four months of the year. Think of it. Stations will have an avalanche of tabulated, overnight data not only on how many people watch their news programs, but also who: men 18-39, women with incomes of $40,000-$60,000, folks who prefer oatmeal to cornflakes, religious fundamentalists. That's high-priority information for advertisers and for TV news directors trying to shape their newscasts to attract the most desirable (and the most) viewers. ("Advertisers who want to reach left-handed Lithuanian Lutherans will be able to do so," jokes Jon Currie, a Los Angeles-based consultant to TV stations.) That is crucially important because local news broadcasts are by far a station's biggest source of revenue. So: goodbye sweeps stunts, hello sanity in the newsroom. Things are looking up, right?

But wait. Two flies swim in that ointment. Stations, in their competitive zeal, may now be tempted to stunt 365 days a year instead of just in sweeps periods, making local TV news a lot sillier and more angst-ridden than ever. That's possible but not likely; it would exhaust news staffs, and cost too much. Second: Nielsen has no immediate plans to expand local People Meter service beyond the top ten cities, which account for only 30 percent of U.S. households. That means that 70 percent of all homes will still get the same old fear mongering during four months of the year. CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox will continue to bloat their affiliates' ratings with extravaganzas in sweeps months: Oscars, Grammys, drama show cliffhangers, finales of reality shows, docudramas ripped from the headlines (Jessica Lynch, Elizabeth Smart), bigfoot celeb interviews (Monica, Barbra, Britney) on the primetime newsmagazines, and lesbian kisses, à la Ally McBeal. (A few Hispanic and African-American groups fear that local People Meters will under-report viewing by minorities, and thus eventually reduce the number of shows reflecting their interests. Nielsen insists that minorities will be counted more accurately, not less.)

In Boston, which pioneered the new system, TV news is stunt-free. "It's been beneficial," says Paul La Camera, president and general manager of WCVB, the ABC affiliate. "It's a much more rational way to run a news operation. We spread our intensity now across the entire year."

He can't remember, La Camera says, when his station last broadcast a news story about salad bars that kill.

Neil Hickey is CJR's editor at large.

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