North East RadioWatch: November 20, 2000

New Station in Western NY, 1220's Back in Cornwall

by Scott Fybush

And now, a NERW Commentary:

Those of you who subscribe to Columbia Journalism Review may have already read the latest study of local TV news, the third annual effort from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. If you haven't, take an hour or so and check it out on the Web, then come back and read on...

I hate to criticize a survey like this, if only because the intentions behind it are so very good. The study purports to measure the "quality" of local TV newscasts, by counting stories and rating them according to range of topics, focus, enterprise, expertise of sources, number of sources, number of viewpoints, and local relevance. Researchers pick the highest-rated timeslot in the market (usually 6 or 11 PM), tape a week's worth of shows from each station, and then assign each station a "quality score" derived from the variables listed above.

If you believe the scores, Boston's WBZ-TV (Channel 4) puts on the best 11 PM newscast in town, just a few points shy of scoring a "B" on the researchers' scale. WHDH-TV (Channel 7) scored near the bottom of the C range, followed by WCVB (Channel 5), mired in the Ds.

The PEJ researchers say "quality sells" -- that is, stations that cover a broad range of issues and topics, with a broad range of sources on camera representing all segments of the community, not only score well on its survey but tend to do well in the ratings, too.

Hard to argue with that, right?

Well, this former TV reporter is going to try.

First off, what about all those factors that are much harder to quantify than story count or number of faces on the screen? Nowhere in this study is any attention paid to the quality of the actual writing, delivery, videography and editing. Does quality writing by itself deliver ratings? I doubt it -- but I have to believe (if only for professional reasons) that it makes as much difference as, say, "source expertise."

Another factor not mentioned in this study is the level of community experience shared by a station's reporting and anchoring team. Ask any Bostonian who "Chet and Nat" are, and they'll recognize them as WCVB's longtime anchor duo. (Natalie Jacobson was, in fact, one of the architects of this study.) Again, nobody would argue that anchor longevity by itself connotes quality, but it can't hurt when it comes to covering more of the community, nor can it be ignored as a ratings factor.

The same applies, to a lesser degree, to reporters: Even if they're not household names in the way a star anchor is, the more community involvement a reporter has, the better his or her stories are likely to be. I'd be fascinated to see if there's a correlation between stations with veteran reporting staffs and high ratings, in this era when a two-year contract in a medium market is considered a long time for a reporter to stay. (In fairness, one of the sidebar articles to the study does recognize the value of long-term local experience, at least in the context of Oakland's KTVU, identified as one of the best stations studied.)

Yet another aspect of the TV news environment that this study ignores is the rise of local cable news channels. Again, I'll freely admit my bias here, having just come off four years working for one of them. But with new ones on the way everywhere (including an Adelphia effort in Buffalo and a Time Warner regional channel in central New York), these channels are meeting the daily news requirements of an increasing number of viewers. What's more, they have the time and people, in many cases, to do something else in this study's "Magic Formula": longer stories. (Which is not to suggest that length, by itself, is a good thing. There are stories that can be told in their entirety in forty seconds, and anything beyond that is mere padding. Length becomes important only when dealing with the complex stories that deserve a fuller telling. In short, no two stories are identical, which is why I'm suspicious of any study like this that purports to come up with a quantifiable formula for covering them.)

It's not just the news channels being ignored. In their attempt to boil TV news down to the numbers, the researchers also decided not to try to study weather and sports. Does a well-liked meteorologist or a popular sportscaster outweigh a "poor-quality" news presentation when it comes to ratings? This study doesn't even try to figure that out. The study also rediscovers the obvious in places. This year's survey was the first to examine morning news shows, choosing three markets (including Portland, where WGME scored a B and WCSH scored a C.) To nobody's surprise, the research revealed that morning news is "heavy on traffic and weather" yet "light on original reporting, enterprising, and even sourcing." Can't argue with that, I suppose, but just what original reporting would a Portland reporter turn out at 2 AM, I wonder? (I'm also willing to bet that many of the "short stories" the researchers found in the morning show, ones for which they concluded that only a photographer and no reporter was sent, were actually shorter versions of longer packages from the previous evening, or had no reporter presence because the same reporter who covered them was also rushing to two or three more stories that evening.)

For all my carping about this year's study, it has some valid points to make. In political coverage, it finds a strong trend towards "horse-race journalism," even in local races, at the expense of issues-driven coverage. The researchers say enterprise reporting and investigative work is disappearing, in part because of the financial pressure brought on by mergers in the industry. And they decry the increased use of feed material instead of locally-generated video. The researchers wrap up by discussing the overall sagging ratings of TV news. Is the industry in danger of becoming irrelevant to younger viewers? Probably. Will a return to traditional journalistic values help bring some of those viewers back? Maybe. But I just can't help being suspicious of any survey, no matter how well-intentioned, that breaks something as variable as the day's news down to hard numbers.

Opposing viewpoints are welcomed!

*And with that, we point the NERW-mobile west and head off for Thanksgiving in Indiana. Don' forget to check out for a new Tower Site of the Week every Wednesday, plus your first look at the week's NERW on Monday. Next week's NERW will appear on Tuesday (Nov. 28), after we return from a thrilling one-day tour of Indianapolis' broadcast facilities, and perhaps a stop in Michigan as well. To our US readers, a happy and safe Thanksgiving. See you in a week!

As of market close, November 17, 2000
NERW's Northeast Television Index 89.35

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