AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   July/August 2000

May Sweeps   

Local TV's Quest for the Ratings

By Bridget Gutierrez
Bridget Gutierrez is a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.     

IN TELEVISION, THE MAY SWEEPS--a month-long period in which in-depth audience measurement is taken--is one of the most critical times of the year. Network and local stations pour vast resources into made-for-TV movies or special news segments in an attempt to attract viewers. The more eyeballs a station gets, the more money it can charge for advertising. Whether the stories that draw viewers to local TV news are high-quality investigations or sensational stunts varies. Here's a smattering of what local stations produced for this year's sweeps, which ran from April 27 through May 24:

What Some Car Dealers Don't Want You to Know
KCBS-TV, Los Angeles
This monster six-part series--which revealed questionable, and in some cases criminal, business practices on the part of several Southern California car dealers--ran despite threats from at least four local dealers that they would pull their advertising. In an undercover investigation of 14 dealerships, KCBS investigative reporter Joel Grover found that all but three were lying, cheating or overcharging their customers by loading contracts with hidden costs or inflated interest rates. "What we found was far more serious than what we expected," says Grover, who's been itching to do the story for several years, but couldn't find a station to support him. But KCBS stood firm about running the story, and no advertisers pulled their contracts. Because of the series, state authorities conducted the biggest raid ever on a car dealership, carting away 20 file cabinets of potential evidence. Grover also succeeded in getting refunds for hundreds of customers who had been secretly overcharged. "I've definitely had other investigations that have had fallout as big--even bigger," he says. "But there was a certain satisfaction getting refunds for people who were poor. That was the nice part about working on this."

Menopause Drug
KARE-TV, Minneapolis/St. Paul
In this "Extra!" segment, KARE reporter Brad Woodard discussed how a popular estrogen-replacement drug--a generic form of Premarin--is made from the urine of pregnant mares. "Who would have guessed a feature about horse pee would be one of sweeps month's most compelling stories?" wrote Noel Holston, TV/radio columnist for Minneapolis' Star Tribune. What Woodard revealed was that for five to six months at a time, horses are tethered to their stalls and hooked up to a collection device that captures their urine 24 hours a day. The horses may only get exercised once or twice a week, he says. While producers thought this was a good story, they didn't want to offend women in menopause. "The effects of menopause are serious," says Executive Producer Stacey Nogy. "No one wanted to deny that [Premarin] was an important drug." But Woodard discovered that there are at least a dozen alternatives for making the drug. "I think what made this story hit home with so many people is that there are alternatives. This is not necessary," he says. After the segment aired, dozens of women called the station to thank Woodard and tell him they had switched to a synthetic alternative.

Felons in Day Care
WKMG-TV, Orlando
One of the hot stories in Orlando last summer was about a drug dealer who was arrested at his home while he was on probation. The twist? That home happened to be a day care center. "I thought, 'Gee, I can't believe they don't know of felons who are living in day care homes,' " recalls Tony Pipitone, a WKMG-TV investigative reporter. So Pipitone decided to figure it out for himself. By combining a database of day care addresses with a database of the addresses of felons on parole or probation, he found dozens of matches. In a two-part report that ran during May sweeps, Pipitone revealed that 14 convicted felons were living or working in local day care homes or centers. "It's always been in the back of my mind that we needed to do this," he says. In response to the report, the state immediately shut down five day care homes and began closing another. But more important, Pipitone says, the two state agencies that had the information are now sharing the data on a regular basis.

Bringing News Home
KDNL-TV, St. Louis
Perhaps influenced by the cable show "Gordon Elliott's Doorknock Dinners," KDNL-TV News Director Jeff Alan came up with a novel idea for May sweeps called "Bringing News Home." On "Doorknock Dinners"--as suggested by the title--Elliott knocks on people's doors and asks to make dinner. On "Bringing News Home" KDNL anchor Patrick Emory goes into people's homes and asks about the day's news. The segments are aired in a live format that runs anywhere from a generous 3 1/2 minutes to 5 minutes. The idea received such a positive response from the community that the station decided to run it as a permanent segment during the 10 p.m. newscast. "Every sweeps it's the same," Alan says. "Everybody's doing the exact same thing, just with a different wrapper, and this is one of the complaints we hear from viewers all the time. So this was something completely different." One of the highlights from May's segments included Marvin Witherspoon's question about whether the price of baseball tickets would skyrocket after a new stadium is built. The station quickly set up an interview with a Cardinals executive and had a response for Witherspoon two days later. On another evening Mindy Mennel wondered aloud why local TV news gives such short shrift to high school sports. In this segment, KDNL showed a split screen with Mennel and the station's sports director, who deftly responded. "This was compelling television," Alan says.

Baltimore's Beggars
WMAR-TV, Baltimore
Anchor Stan Stovall went "undercover" as a vagrant to experience what life is like for Baltimore's beggars. For two days, Stovall wore a disguise--donning makeup and a scraggly beard--and roamed the popular tourist areas of Charm City. "I had to admit I had some reservations about getting made up as a homeless person," Stovall says. "I could tell you how people would treat me without getting [a disguise.]" But he did it anyway, panhandling during the day and returning to the station for the nightly newscast. "It was one of the ideas that was submitted to look at the issue of panhandling--of whether those people were really homeless and needed the money," says WMAR News Director Sandra McKeller. "We decided to do it for [the May sweeps] and add a twist by adding our anchor dressed up and actually get the perspective of being a panhandler." McKeller said the piece tried to examine the plight of homelessness. The burning question Stovall wanted to answer: Should you give panhandlers money? "Some of the research I found in talking with homeless advocates...and even homeless people themselves was you should not give them cash," he says. While WMAR views the piece as an important public service, Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik could hardly contain himself. "It was the worst," Zurawik exclaims. "Stan goes out and he's got this big introduction, 'Who are these people out there asking for our money? This story will tell you just exactly who these people are.' Well, according to the story, they're anchorpeople who are in disguise! It never told me who they are."