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Good News, Bad News

Sweeps month brings out the best and worst in local television news.

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They are anonymous. They are chosen at random. They are each responsible for roughly $8.8 million of someone else's money. They are the 5,000 Nielsen households whose television viewing habits determine which television shows flop or fly and which broadcasting companies will get the biggest slices of a $44 billion pie. As Nielsen puts it, their media research information is "the currency in all the transactions between [television] buyers and sellers." Though larger media markets, Memphis included, receive ratings information daily, the majority of Nielsen's research information is gathered during four one-month periods known as "sweeps": November, February, May, and July. During these periods viewers can expect to witness splashy premieres, take in an overhyped miniseries or two, thrill to dozens of cliff-hanging season finales, and experience countless pumped-up, often bizarre regional newscasts chock full of late-breaking weather updates. Take a drink every time you hear the word Doppler used during sweeps and you'll never play "Hi, Bob" again.

If Nielsen information is currency, viewers are the standard. Advertising rates for television newscasts are determined by cost per thousand viewers and naturally, the larger the viewing audience, the higher the rates. But competition is stiff and getting stiffer by the hour. With the continued growth of cable and the convenience of the Internet, not to mention the glut of radio stations, newspapers, and magazines, television news programs have to fight harder than ever to attract and maintain people's attention. They have to entertain and stimulate as well as inform. In recent years sweeps periods have seen some news programs turned into garish, fear-mongering game shows offering sensationalized crime stories, wads of cash, and oodles of other fabulous prizes in lieu of solid reporting. Items teased as serious news turn out to be little more than promotions for network programming. And while the trend toward tabloid television continues to hang on in certain corners, it appears that, in Memphis at any rate, a backlash is underway.

"A few years ago we gave away new Toyotas [during sweeps]," says Bob Eoff, general manager for WREG Channel 3. "We received a million postcards from viewers and we saw a definite spike in the [ratings] meter. It scared us. We said, 'It's time to get back to business.'" WPTY Channel 24 director of operations Marshall Hart notes that you see a number of things in broadcast journalism today that would have been frowned upon in previous decades, and he likewise denounces big sweeps period giveaways.

"So you are giving away new cars," Hart says with vague disdain. "You see the [ratings] meters go up. Then [sweeps] are over, the car giveaways stop, and things go back to normal. But because of this stunt advertisers have to pay a premium, and they aren't getting their money's worth." While WPTY doesn't do big giveaways during sweeps periods, Hart is not entirely opposed to dispensing occasional freebies. "Everyone does it," he says. "We do it to attract attention and create sampling. It's like if the Flyer went and dropped a copy of the paper into everybody's mailbox. Some people who have never seen the Flyer before might say, 'Hey this is great' and start picking it up. For people who don't like the Flyer already, it would confirm why they don't like it."

There was a time, not so long ago, when stations might hold big stories and special investigative reports for sweeps periods, but everyone seems to be in agreement that that time has long gone. "Between the newspapers and the other stations the market is so competitive now," Eoff says, "we can't hold stories for sweeps." What stations can do, however, is tailor their sweeps stories to appeal to the broadest audience base possible. Stephanie Croswait, news director for WPTY, explains the conundrum, saying, "You want to break the important stories, but you also want to run stories that people are interested in. And what people are interested in aren't always the big stories. Sometimes you have to run the more interesting stories first to bring [viewers] into the tent for the important stories."

In a perfectly spun statement, WMC Channel 5's general manager, Howard Meagle, says, "Here at WMC-TV we work hard to deliver high performance standards every day whether we are in sweeps or not. We think ratings confirm that fact." After all, the top-rated news program is the best news program, no? Well, not necessarily. Though you'll never hear it from news stations touting their performance rating, Nielsen makes it perfectly clear in its literature that its ratings system in no way reflects the quality or standards of a given program. When considering issues of popularity versus merit it's hard to ignore the words of William Shakespeare who, in a deft and still-accurate description of mass consumption, wrote, "[People who] won't give a doit to relieve a lame beggar will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian."

In an attempt to help viewers determine who is dispensing quality programming and who is putting on a three-ring circus, Flyer staffers (editor Bruce VanWyngarden and staff writers Chris Herrington, Mary Cashiola, and Rebekah Gleaves) got together to provide "team coverage" of four local television news outlets' performances last week. Their reports follow. -- Chris Davis

WMC Channel 5 (NBC)

Joe Birch and Donna Davis, anchors; Dave Brown, weather; Jarvis Greer, sports.

Joe Birch
Whew! How about that crime spree last week? Scary, huh? You missed it? You must not have been watching Channel 5. WMC's 10 o'clock newscasts last week exemplified "crime-time" television. In fact, if you watched WMC all week you might still be locked in your house quivering with fear. On Monday night the lead story was about "bold and brazen criminals on the loose in the Mid-South." The "crime spree" story loosely connected a series of house break-ins and a man who was picking up people at bus-stops and robbing them. The reporter summarized thusly: "The situation is leading police to say, 'Criminals are just plain crazy!" Which police officer, if any, actually uttered these immortal words we never learned.

One officer was quoted as saying: "These days when you get kidnapped you don't come back." Never mind that the bus-stop robber released all five of his victims. Reporter Joyce Peterson capped the two-minute segment on the "mean, mean season" by adding helpfully, "Crooks, thieves, and killers are doing the crime but not doing the time." The basis for this statement? Who knows? Channel 5's reporting was long on histrionics and fear-mongering and woefully short on content.

The other "Top Story" of the week was continuing "coverage" of actor Robert Blake and his murdered wife. The Blake story was heavily promoted at the top of all five newscasts but at no time during the week was much fresh news on the story presented. On Monday, however, after a one-minute rehash of various rumors and speculations about the case, there was a delicious moment of unconscious irony as we were taken "live" to Channel 5's "Satellite Center" to hear reporter Keith Daniels tell us that police had asked the media to "stop circulating rumors and speculation." Other highlights of the week's coverage included a videoclip of O.J. Simpson offering advice to Blake: "Robert, man, this kind of situation can make you so frustrated that you want to go out and hit somebody." So can this kind of news.

Another crime story was "Protecting Your Privacy," in which we were breathlessly informed that "anyone can now link your phone number to your address. Stalkers and child molesters can use the Internet to find where you are! Parents are worried!" The story detailed how so-called reverse directories could be used to get an address by cross-referencing it with a phone number. Of course, if they have your name, stalkers and child molesters could also use the phonebook! But that's another story.

Other stories covered during the week were updates on "Hoop Dreams," WMC's handle for all stories about the NBA and Memphis. There was good footage of Mayor Jim Rout at the County Commission meeting one night; also interviews with the Grizzlies' coach and general manager while they were in town. Sending a reporter down to the barbecue fest to interview employees of FedEx was an interesting idea but not particularly informative.

There was a moving three-minute feature on Thursday night about the recovery of a man who had been hideously deformed in a plant explosion. Part of a series called "Miracles at the Med," the story was effectively told without over-the-top dramatics.

Channel 5's weatherman, Dave Brown, did his usual yeoman work explaining the various radar maps and presenting the five-day forecast in "Pinpoint Weather." He also promoted the "Birthday Bash" segment, WMC's most overt bow to sweeps month. (If your birthday is read on the air, you can call in and win $1,000 or more.)

Another curious part of Channel 5's newscast is the "Family Healthcast," a one-minute segment which seems to exist mainly to separate two long commercial breaks. Family Healthcast stories last week included such oddities as the news that you and your family could take advantage of reduced first-class fares on Northwest Airlines and a plug for NBC's The West Wing under the guise of Martin Sheen's character's admission that he had multiple sclerosis.

It was a fairly slow week for sports, with Jarvis Greer doing a competent, low-key job covering high school and college baseball tournaments, the Grizzlies, and the Redbirds.

But when it comes to the news, it seems that the legacy of departed station manager Bill Applegate -- the man who juiced up WMC's news coverage to its current hyperbolic level -- lives on. It's a shame, because anchors Birch and Davis are a good team, as professional in appearance and delivery as their peers in any major market station. They deserve better. -- Bruce VanWyngarden

WREG Channel 3 (CBS)

Pam McKelvy and Jerry Tate anchors; Tim Simpson, weather; Glenn Carver, sports.

Pam McKelvy
Watching WREG you hardly would have known last week was sweeps week. But listening to the reporters and anchors read the news, you might have had some idea that everyone there was working overtime to make the normal news a little more interesting. Though the new stories on WREG were business as usual, they tended to be peppered with amusing delivery styles.

Channel 3's mix of general news, human-interest stories, weather (and weather, and weather), sports, and the occasional obscure investigative series was impressive and impressively not sensationalized. In fact, not only did the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts avoid the attention-grabbing news stories typical of sweeps months, WREG rarely deviated from the exact same stories -- told over and over again.

On WREG this past week, viewers got double and triple doses of weather (sometimes six minutes during a single newscast) and lots and lots of sports, particularly anything related to the Vancouver Grizzlies or Memphis Redbirds.

One of last week's oft-repeated stories was about the arsons at Goodlett Elementary School, with each airing showing the same maudlin footage of charred playground equipment and upset parents. At one point reporter Stephanie Scurlock even employed Dr. Evil-esque dramatic delivery, saying, "Playground equipment doesn't come cheap. It costs ... [suspense] 10 ... thousand ... dollars." Unfortunately, the station did not show Scurlock on screen, so we'll never know if she held her pinkie finger to the corner of her mouth while saying that.

Other segments, again if not overly sensational, were equally amusing. During coverage of the murder of Codes Inspector Mickey Wright, WREG repeatedly aired a lengthy interview with the suspect's young male roommate. Filmed at home and sans shirt, during one laugh-out-loud moment, the camera even zoomed in on the man's presumably homemade tattoo of a bucking horse with the caption "The Legend" emblazoned across his arm. Had it not been network news, it could have passed for a segment on The Daily Show.

Meanwhile, in his report on shigellosis, a bacterial disease affecting Forrest City, Arkansas, reporter Omari Fleming kept things interesting by slipping in phrasing that would have left Johnnie Cochran green with envy.

"Washing your hands is all you need to do -- to keep shigella from infecting you"

was how Fleming opted to end his not-so-hard-hitting news segment. Moreover, the same story featured a "man on the street" interview with an Arkansas woman who thought her daughter might have had shigellosis but later learned that her daughter was healthy.

Like the shigellosis piece, many of the other WREG news packages that ran last week had "man on the street" interviews showing citizens saying things like "I want my NBA Now" while waving to the camera. Likewise, several days last week WREG aired an interview with a mustachioed and shower-capped female in a story about a good Samaritan who was shot while trying to help a fleeing victim escape a downtown neighborhood.

But the most amusing moment seemed to be unintentional. During a story about the NBA pursuit team's efforts, anchor McKelvy punted to "Elliot Cohen, standing outside the NBA offices." However, the next image showed Cohen standing in the WREG newsroom. For his part, Cohen recovered well, ending his segment with "Elliot Cohen, reporting live from the newsroom." At least he was alive.

This being the week of Memphis in May's barbecue cooking contest at Tom Lee Park, Channel 3 began its barbecue fest coverage on Monday, a full two days before the event started. The barbecue fixation continued throughout the week, peaking with reporter Mike Matthews' (arguably the hardest working man in Memphis television news) vexing report on Friday night. Matthews, in between visually interesting images of pig decorations and searing meat, would say things like "Viva Pork Vegas" and "I'm getting out of here before someone tries to baste me."

While the station did not employ sensational techniques, WREG did use lots of computer graphics. A full-screen "BIG STORY" banner graphic appeared before each evening's top news story, and a segment titled "You Choose the News" allowed viewers to vote on the station's Web site for the story they most wanted to see.

WREG did grant itself a few guilty sweeps pleasures, namely a segment where anchor Jerry Tate teased repeatedly with the question, "Which costs more: sending your kids to school -- or to prison?"

Likewise, a story on Invisalign, a company that manufactures clear dental braces, aired incessantly at the end of the week, each time with slightly different footage. On Friday night this story was advertised during the 6 o'clock newscast to be on "right after Batman and Robin airs on CBS tonight." Similarly, consumer reporter Andy Wise's popular Thursday night "Does It Work?" series featured an interesting, if outright advertorial, piece on flame-retardant paint. During the almost five-minute segment, Wise even told viewers about a link to the manufacturer's Web site on WREG's own Web site.

Certain gaffes and dramatic excesses aside, last week WREG presented mostly responsible newscasts, with mostly informative and responsible stories, the only drawback being that they presented them over and over again. -- Rebekah Gleaves

WPTY Channel 24 (ABC)

Renee Malone and Bill Lunn, anchors; Brian Teigland, weather; Greg Gaston, sports.

Renee Malone and Bill Lunn
In an age when the absolute worst is expected of local news coverage, particularly during a sweeps period, WPTY delivered a relatively honorable newscast last week. During the 10 p.m. nightly newscast on Channel 24, some of the undesirable elements that have become ubiquitous features of the local television news industry were noticeably absent. There were no cash giveaways. There were no promotional pieces for network programming masquerading as "news." There were no false "breaking news" stories and very little in the way of flashy video of no local news value (footage on Tuesday night's newscast of an unoccupied runaway train in Ohio was, admittedly, pretty spectacular).

But does the Memphis that WPTY's newscast presented actually jibe with reality? Channel 24 may well be less rabid in this regard than their competitors, but at a time when violent-crime rates are falling, WPTY still presents a Memphis overrun with young black and Hispanic men committing mayhem and spends a disproportionate amount of news time following the exploits of what one piece labeled "Mid-South predator[s]."

In the Memphis presented on WPTY's newscast, the state budget crisis and subsequent tax battle and the debate over public funding for an NBA arena are on equal footing with a teenager accused of robbery being freed by a possibly faulty East High School security video (described as "an accused robber's best friend") and the arrest of a criminal captured on an ATM surveillance video as stories that demand nightly updates.

Local violent crime accounted for roughly 40 percent of WPTY's lead segments last week, but the reliance on the police blotter for news coverage was rather inconsistent. Tuesday night's news actually led with the state's tax debate and federal interest-rate cuts before moving on to the ATM surveillance footage of the captured criminal. On Wednesday night, the station led with five straight local violent-crime stories, with story number six about the conviction of the Florida teenager charged with murdering his teacher.

The station's most sensationalistic reporting occurred on Friday night's newscast when the lead story about break-ins in a Hickory Hill neighborhood was introduced with the following voice-over: "For days families across the Mid-South have been taking extra care to lock their doors and look over their shoulders." Anchor Bill Lunn then moved into the report with this: "Dangerous robbers have been forcing their way into Hickory Hill homes threatening to kill residents right in their own houses ."

But that kind of hyped crime reporting was balanced by a responsibly reported week-long "24 Investigates" series on problems with the Tennessee Department of Human Services. In terms of screen time, this series was given more space than all of the violent-crime coverage combined.

As far as fluff/human-interest coverage, Channel 24 mostly ignored the kind of national celebrity tidbits that local news typically indulges in, though on Thursday night the station did spend more time teasing the audience with footage of formerPresident Clinton getting egged than it did on the story itself. Instead, Channel 24 stuck to local human-interest features -- on Thursday night a local man who calls himself "Captain Fireball" befriended by a South Memphis fire station and a goose with a fish hook stuck in its leg on Friday night.

Truthfully, with over-the-top crime reporting de rigueur on local television news, the most offensive thing on Channel 24's newscasts last week was probably the incredibly treacly theme music for Wednesday night's "A Waiting Child" feature. -- Chris Herrington

WHBQ Channel 13 (Fox)

Claudia Barr and Steve Dawson, anchors; Jim Jaggers, weather; David Lee, sports.

Claudia Barr
Miss a juicy story? Don't worry, Fox 13 might run it twice.

The station ran a story about the effectiveness of new diet drug Body Solutions titled "Fact or Fat?" during the Monday night broadcast. The story, which included interviews with a radio disc jockey paid to take the drug, someone who used it for a month, and a doctor, ran again the following Sunday.

Both times "Fact or Fat?" ran it was followed by another segment on physical appearance: Monday it was cheap makeup tips; on Sunday, the station explored the growing popularity of teeth-whitening.

Then, during 13's Thursday night broadcast live from the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Tom Lee Park, the exact same story about the Miss Piggy Contest ran near the beginning and at the end of the broadcast. Same video footage, same voice-over. Just in case you missed it the first time.

As the official station of the barbecue contest, Fox 13 broadcast live from the park for much of the week, covering everything from all-female barbecue teams to barbecue ice cream, barbecue-sauce wrestling, and the world's only barbecue magazine.

During the rest of the week, though, it was business as usual for Fox 13. The station stayed away from large-scale sensationalism while playing up big stories and big names, as well as running its own news segments alongside network television shows.

The nightly broadcasts started with 10 minutes of top stories before cutting to the first commercial; even live from barbecue fest, those stories stuck to the theme of crime and punishment. Stories of Memphis shoot-outs, kidnappings, arson, and home invasions topped the news, as well as arrests of wanted criminals, and trials for crimes already committed.

The May 6th kidnapping of a woman who was stuffed in the trunk of her car and then pushed into a lake was a top story for several days, first as news, then with tips from the victim on how viewers could protect themselves from being kidnapped, and then when police had a suspect.

Another segment told viewers that car break-ins were on the rise downtown -- although no study or numbers were cited -- and, after giving a list of tips on protecting your property, members of the news team took to the streets to see if they could find any cars with valuables in plain sight. They triumphantly reported they found a lady's purse in an SUV in just 30 seconds.

The station routinely teased items from its "World Minute," including Clinton's egging, President Bush's daughter's arrest, and a woman who kidnapped her cats after her divorce. Because "World Minute" is a 60-second news broadcast covering several stories, each teaser was only seconds shorter than the full story.

On Wednesday, the station ran "The [Real] Boot Camp," its weekly tie-in with the network's reality show Boot Camp, and "Mid-South's Most Wanted," a smaller, newsified version of America's Most Wanted.

Perhaps the most telling of all Fox 13 coverage was a segment on Robert Blake's wife. The story focused on a statement from the Los Angeles police department asking the media to stop disseminating rumors and misinformation about the case. The station then ran footage of one of Blake's friends talking about Blake having a bullet with Bakely's name on it. The segment ended by saying the man's statements were "just the comments the LAPD wants to keep out of the limelight." -- Mary Cashiola

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