`Sweeps' influences news choices

Television and Radio Column

November 14, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

On ABC's Monday Night Football this week, announcer Al Michaels dutifully was plugging the network's prime-time special featuring Victoria's Secret lingerie models.

Without skipping a beat, Dennis Miller retorted: "You know what Victoria's secret is? It's sweeps."

And with that snappy repartee, the comedic ranter turned sports broadcaster explained television in November. "Sweeps" periods help local stations set advertising rates, while this month is one of the industry's most important of these periods.

That single fact has determined much of what you've seen on the tube this month, from the witless to the intriguing. And that fact also has set off a wave of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

FOR THE RECORD - The original story ran with the wrong call number for WPOC. It has been corrected for the archive database.

On WBAL-TV, for example, there have been promotions for special reports on the security of baby food, the potential dangers of chemical loads carried by drivers on the interstate, and the complications of laser surgery. If these stories actually were crushingly important, viewers should have learned about them before the ratings period.

The "sweeps" phenomenon influences choices made at the network level, too. ABC, currently running a distant third to CBS and NBC, is showing signs of desperation with its decision to broadcast the Victoria's Secret special. The network's Web site promises "red carpet interviews, model profiles and behind-the-scenes `making-of ' segments that epitomize the style, glamour and seductiveness of the event." It's fun for the whole frat house.

Last Sunday, however, ABC showed an uncut version of Steven Spielberg's popular World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan. And that major network, alone among its peers, decided to carry live coverage of President Bush's 8 p.m. address to the country last Thursday from Atlanta.

CBS (which was broadcasting Survivor at 8 p.m.) and NBC (Friends) weren't particularly interested in sacrificing their inflated Thursday ratings. Neither were their local stations, WJZ (Channel 13)and WBAL (Channel 11), which rejected running the speech. Meanwhile, the president's address meant ABC stations could drop the network's lightly-watched fare for that time slot from the ratings books.

On Nov. 7, WBAL decided to tag its 11 p.m. news broadcast as an "election special," although it was hardly a major voting day for most Marylanders. The mayor's race in Annapolis was covered, along with votes in New York, New Jersey and Virginia.

That segment appeared after several other reports, and the station didn't even send a reporter an hour west on Interstate 70 to cover the race for mayor in Frederick. But the designation as an "election special" enables the station to drop the newscast, on a weak night for NBC, from Nielsen tabulations of ratings estimates.

"Bottom line is, in this business, on election night, many folks, in many markets in the nation decide to pull the numbers," says Margaret Cronan, news director for WBAL. "Nielsen gives us permission to do so."

She's right: NBC-owned stations across the country made the same decision. It's all too easy to get cynical about such stunts. Cronan notes that stations are given great leeway to drop programs from ratings calculations on holidays, when viewing levels often are unpredictable.

With an eye to Thanksgiving, Cronan adds: "I'm eager to see what Channel 13 will do next week."

Taking on CNN

After twice critiquing The Sun, Mark E. Hyman, the vice president at Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc., now is taking on the rest of the media with editorials on the company's Baltimore stations, WBFF and WNUV.

He criticized CNN, although not by name, for its arrangement with Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based broadcaster that has been allowed by the Taliban to operate in Afghanistan. That very permission, he said, suggests the Arab news channel's objectivity has been compromised. And he said other news outlets have been similarly providing a platform for other enemy propaganda.

"Consider this," Hyman told viewers. "No responsible news organization would permit a Nazi death camp commander, if one were alive today, to spew his brand of hate."

The argument has a familiar ring.

Back in June 1985, as American networks showed footage arranged by media-savvy hijackers holding hostages in Lebanon, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger denounced the coverage in an appearance on ABC's Nightline.

"If the Nazis had invited networks to Auschwitz to watch people marching off to gas chambers, would it be appropriate news coverage to cover that?" he asked.

"Absolutely," shot back anchor Ted Koppel. "Can you imagine what the outrage of the world would have been?"

Radio honors

The region's radio broadcasters honored their own last Thursday at Martin's East with the "Achievement in Radio Awards." And, when it came to news, talk formats WBAL-AM or WJHU-FM didn't dominate the top awards: it was newscaster Aaron Rehkopf, of country music station WPOC (93.1 FM).

Rehkopf was selected by a group of industry panelists from Nashville as best newscaster, best news coverage (for the tunnel fire) and best locally produced public affairs program for his Sunday morning show.

Chip Franklin of WBAL radio (1090 AM) was tapped as best talk show host, while his station's sports department won the honors in that category. And Radio One hosts "Poet" (given name: Candace King) of WERQ-FM (92.3 FM) and Gavin Montgomery of WWIN-AM were judged to be the best new talents.

The complete list of winners can be found at the industry Web site www.DCRTV.com.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folken-flik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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