Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On TV News, Sweeps and Sensationalism

Posted By on Tue, May 21, 2013 at 6:11 AM

When the TBI laid into Channel 4 on Friday, I noted that Dennis Ferrier's Holly Bobo story came during the May sweeps period, and that other stations seem to have their most promotable work airing during this period.

I didn't realize that was a controversial statement.

Sweeps periods take place four times each year — February, May, July and November. They are hugely important in the television industry, because that's when audience viewership is measured, and that data is used to set TV advertising rates.

In a conversation on Twitter, NewsChannel 5 investigative producer Kevin Wisniewski objected.

I also got an interesting email from Channel 4 investigative reporter Jeremy Finley, who deferred to the station's management in the review of the Bobo story, but wanted to emphasize some of the work WSMV has been doing:

"Your article makes it seem that the Holly Bobo stories is all we, as a station, have offered this ratings period. And, I might add, our investigations run constantly, we don't just air investigations in ratings periods. We take a lot of pride in our investigative unit and the watchdog reporting we provide."

That's fair. The only story from Channel 4 I mentioned was the Bobo piece. They did a great piece in April on state prisoners using Facebook and cell phones and another good one last week on problems with 911 calls and seniors in retirement towers.

Flipping through Channel 4's I-Team page online, the one thing I didn't see? The Holly Bobo story, which wasn't done by them.

It occurs to me, though, that stations are going to promote and program during sweeps in order to maximize ratings. It's the hand they've been dealt. Maybe as ratings schemes get more sophisticated, they'll be able to take a longer snapshot and these really intense periods won't matter so much. And as long as stations promote stories like this ...

... it's going to be hard to escape criticism about sweeps.

Other media, of course, are governed by their models. Online content is pushed mainly between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., ebbing and flowing with an increasingly computerized workforce. Newspapers put all of their eggs in the Sunday basket. The best radio is often centered around drive time, when the most people are in their cars.

Maybe the bigger problem here is that when there's so much shouting during sweeps, it's harder to differentiate the real investigations from more sensational stories with less subtance.

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