Forget wrinkle cream scams and strip club stings: Local TV newsies across the country have shelved fluffy sweeps stories in preparation for what’s likely to be one of the most unusual ratings periods in years — November 2001.
That sweep (offcially Nov. 1-28) is the first major one of the fall — and this year it’s the first since the biggest disaster on U.S. soil, the attacks of Sept. 11.
November traditionally is when stations start to set ad rates, as well as the tone of the season. It’s so important to local newsies that they plan segs four to six months in advance. But after Sept. 11 everything changed. Gone were reports on local restaurants operating below health standards; gone were exposes on child porn. And as events changed, additional stories crowded the back burners.
One station trashed a junk-mail story once it became clear that anthrax was being spread through the U.S. Postal Service. Clearly, viewers’ interest would be in deadly mail, not annoying mail.
“It was clear in a nano second Sept. 11 that certain planned segments were not relevant anymore,” says Joel Cheatwood, Viacom TV Stations’ exec VP for news and news director for WCBS in Gotham, adding that August 1992’s Hurricane Andrew was the only time he could recall personally having to “face something like this.”
“In New York, there’s really one story. It’s going to be that way for a long time,” Cheatwood says.
Usually this is also a time to hype their stories on whether blondes really do have more fun.
Thousands of miles from ground zero, Kimberly Godwin, VP-news director for L.A.’s NBC outlet KNBC, says, “You could say the board has been erased.”
It’s the same for Phil Metlin, news director for Fox’s WTVT in Tampa, who has an entire unit devoted to sweeps and had to postpone a number of stories his unit was working on. “We will not see much of lighter pieces anywhere in the country in November, or for awhile for that matter,” he says.
Thirty days out from a sweep, most stations usually have a fairly set calendar of what they plan to air. This year, that’s just not possible.
Some stations now are airing news specials on events as they happen, creating a nearly seamless transition to the usually heightened news presence that characterizes sweeps.
While one might expect news departments nationwide to be nearing burn-out, Godwin, who started as veep-news director of NBC’s Los Angeles outlet KNBC on Oct. 1, says these intense moments are what people in news “live for.”
“This is where you get to prove your worth to the community you serve and to yourself, if this is your passion,” says Godwin, who is in the midst of relocating from Atlanta to Los Angeles for the job.
Still, many stations have been working together to get the job done.
Station groups have been sharing stories: Fox outlets in Tampa, Fla., and Washington, D.C., have even been at work on a sweeps co-production that will air on both stations and possibly other Fox stations.
Katherine Green, VP-news director for Fox’s WTTG in Washington, says the crisis showed her how much the local news biz has changed — for the better — in the 15 years she’s been in it.
“When the Pentagon situation happened for us, Fox was fantastic as a group. The resources we had on hand to cover day-to-day news were instantly drained,” she says. Since Fox sent help in the form of news trucks, reporters and photographers from other stations, she was able to stay on for 65 hours after the Pentagon was hit.
“Historically, stations have operated independently, even when owned by the same group,” Green says. “The Fox news product has evolved, and as a result we were able to have the local story, while our competitors went with their network feed, which focused on New York.”
In order to follow up on WCBS’ investigations and to bring localism to the station’s reports of activity overseas, news director Cheatwood made the unusual decision to send two reporters abroad. Lou Young will head to the Mideast and Michael O’Looney is off to France.
Local stations have gotten away from sending their own reporters abroad in the past decade, as network news divisions have filledthose needs.
WCBS will spend “thousands and thousands” on its endeavor, which is something many other stations are not willing to do.
Those stations say that if it becomes “their turn” to send someone, they will, but that they are not willing to send reporters unnecessarily into danger, as long as the network can handle it.
“The networks have done a great job blanketing the globe,” Cheatwood says. “We felt by deciding to send our own people, we could control our own destiny in terms of crafting stories.”
Inadvertently, the move has solved one problem for WCBS, which is the touchy situation many local stations face going into this sweep: Figuring out how to promote sweeps stories, when it’s not clear what they will be.
“We had a groupwide meeting about this very issue this morning. We decided we’ll just continue to promote the fact that we’re there, covering the story from every angle,” Cheatwood says.