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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

Sweeping Away the Local TV News Series   

TV news directors are abandoning the multipart series.

By Patrick Rogers
Patrick Rogers is a reporter for Conus Communications, a broadcast news service in Washington, D.C.      

TV news directors are abandoning the multipart series.

Call it short attention span theater. In their latest attempt to draw viewers during sweeps periods, many local television news directors have all but abandoned multipart series.

Audience research companies say viewers no longer have the patience — or the time — to tune in three nights in a row to see a series. So, many news directors have changed their approach to covering the news during the three big sweeps times: February, May and November.

Sweeps equals stress for news directors — it's the time when stations measure the size of their audiences and who's in them in order to determine how much they can charge advertisers.

"You tend to live with those rates for six months, so they are very important," says Eric Braun, vice president of Frank N. Magid Associates, consultants for about 150 local television news departments.

About 20 years ago, stations began to use sweeps months to showcase their best investigative series, according to Jim Willi, president of Audience Research & Development, a Dallas consulting firm.

Typically, the series were shown over the course of three or four nightly newscasts. Viewers would tune in night after night to watch the series unfold. Not anymore.

"Viewers can't keep up with the series anymore. They've expressed frustration because they would see part one on the 6:00 news on Monday and miss the next day," Braun says.

Series no longer work well, he says, because viewers have so many more news options. More stations are doing more newscasts, and there are now three 24 hour cable news channels. "People have broken their six and 11 o'clock news habits," he says.

So how do ratings hungry stations hook viewers, if only for the key sweeps times?

More and more stations, according to audience researchers, are turning to the "promotable one-part special report." And some are trying to get people to tune in more than once a day, with "vertically integrated series," in which part one of a story runs on an early newscast and tries to hook viewers into returning for the second part on a later show.

Stations that opt for daily "special reports" promote them as stand alone pieces dressed up with snazzy graphics. These stories also run a little longer than the traditional one minute, 30 second pieces.

"We spend more time on production values," says Lucy Himstedt Riley, news director at WSFA, the NBC affiliate in Montgomery, Alabama. "Extra editing, better graphics. They're better to watch. I wish we could do more of this day to day."

But what about impact? Can a one-part story, even a "special" one, have the effect of an in-depth series?

Jack Mackenzie, news director for Denver's CBS affiliate, KCNC, thinks so. During the November sweeps KCNC aired more than six stories that ran longer than three minutes and several that were longer than four minutes — an eternity compared to the traditional broadcast news spot.

"We're still busting chops," Mackenzie says. "We're still revealing the things that need to be revealed in this community. I think without the series you have to become even better storytellers."

In November, for example, KCNC ran a five-minute story about the Air Force A-10 that crashed into the Colorado Rockies. "In the old days, that's one that would have easily stretched into three or four parts," he says. "But that's a story that had to be told once, with the information given from beginning to end, so people can easily follow it. In a series what you do is you end up repeating what you said Monday to catch people up on Tuesday."

And then there are vertically integrated series, which researchers say some stations are experimenting with. In these multipart stories, part one is run during, say, the 4:00 newscast and part two at 6:00 or 11:00.

As part of one 5:00 newscast during the November sweeps, KCNC ran a story comparing cell phone prices. At 10:00 it ran a related story comparing cell phone companies' coverage areas. "The two stories were related, but they still made sense if you only saw one," says Mackenzie.

Some audience researchers say viewers are more likely to hang in to catch part two if it airs the same day as part one. The vertically integrated series also allows stations to use an early newscast to promote a later one.

For stations that opt to run special reports on different topics throughout the week, promotion becomes crucial. It's tough to get viewers to tune in every night for a new story on a different topic.

That pressure can lead to overhyped promos that promise more than the special reports deliver (see The Business of Broadcasting, September 1995). "We have a word for that — it's called 'anticippointment,' " says Braun.

KCNC has built in controls to subdue overheated promotional spots: The news department has final say over copy used for promos.

But when it comes to sweeps, there's one thing that needs no explanation. Series, one-part promotable special reports and vertically integrated series all lose out to a breaking news story in winning over viewers.