Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's Not Halloween, but It's Just as Scary!

Hold On To Your Remotes

It’s that time of the year again. No, I’m not talking about autumn. No, I’m not writing about Halloween, although it is similar. I’m talking about the fall sweeps for television! Usually, TV stations “front load” “sweeps stories” (notice all the jargon) before the sweeps begin hoping to entice likely viewers to their shows and newscasts for the coming month. Does it work? Sometimes.

Officially, the Nielsen fall sweeps month is the four weeks from October 30-November 26 this year. There is one BIG potential or perhaps probable problem with this year’s sweeps. It is the continuing stalemate between LIN TV/KXAN TV and Time Warner Cable.

Otherwise, this would/could be a really interesting rating period this year. Why? If KXAN TV and Time Warner can sort out their retransmission issues, it could be the battle of #1 anchor teams.

KVUE TV is the #1 station for broadcast news right now, but co-anchor Christine Haas bolted for a bigger market and, probably, a bigger pay check at the Belo station in Houston. (KVUE TV’s web site says she’s still there. Nope.) Now, relative newcomer Tyler Sieswerda will be paired with a genuine newcomer, Terri Gruca. She’s coming from a good station in Minneapolis. She is originally from North Carolina. It remains to be seen if Austinites will murmur, “She ain’t from around here.” She’ll have to win over her audience. Of course, she’s joining the team with meteorologist Mark Murray and sportscaster Mike Barnes, both of whom have been around a while. Murray may be embraced for his appreciation of the Austin music scene as much as he is for his weather acumen.

The potential battle begins here, however. KXAN TV will go into the November sweeps with the same team that took them to #1 earlier in the late 1990s—Robert Hadlock, Leslie Cook, Jim Spencer, and Roger Wallace. Leslie is to return to the air on KXAN this week. One problem: They aren’t on Time Warner Cable right now. Yes, there are many, many other ways to receive KXAN TV, but Austin remains one of the most wired cities in the nation. LIN TV may be trying to change that. (See earlier posts.) Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing them on the set together again. They have great chemistry. Yes, I did work there for 16 years as managing editor; but with them off the cable, I’m just glad I’m not in their sales department right now!

And don’t count out the other powerful and compelling anchors in town who have also been #1: Judy Maggio and Ron Oliveira at KEYE-TV. Judy and Ron were on top of the ratings mountain in the glory days of KVUE TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since they teamed together again at KEYE, there has been constant growth in their following, particularly at 10 p.m., rising to #2 at 10 p.m. this year. Katie Couric and the CBS Evening News was a drag on the success of the early newscasts at 5 and 6 p.m., but Katie may have found her voice and audience during this election cycle with the interviews of Republican Party Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin. Judy and Ron are pros and great people. And, yeah, I worked with them too. There is also appreciation for Susan Vessell, who is now the 5, 6, and 10 meteorologist promoted from the morning news, and sportscaster Bob Ballou.

I know that I’m not mentioning Fox and News 8, but their anchor team hasn’t been #1.

What I really, really hope is that the KXAN TV / Time Warner Cable issues are settled somehow before sweeps. Then, we can look beyond all the inane, vacuous sweeps stories that the stations will, no doubt, pull out of the can. It is true that reporters’ sweeps stories can make a difference however. I’ll allude to one continuing sweeps series. James Lynch, an anchor/reporter for KXAN TV in the ‘90s did a series on the “Cabbage Diet” (Remember the “Cabbage Diet”?) It was a roaring success.

That success seems to underscore what Austin news-watching audiences have professed over the years. They don’t care who delivers the news. They just want substance. They want content. The anchors don’t matter. But, if the anchors don’t matter, why do all of the TV stations’ consultants do research on the anchors assessing their recognition and popularity?

Similar to the coming election, the only research that matters are the Nielsen “overnights” and the final “book” analyzing what newscasts and shows worked and, maybe, why. The viewers will be voting with their remotes.

© Jim McNabb

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