February was back to the basics

February 26, 2014 01:30

By Al Sunshine, RTDNA Contributor

It will be a few days before all of the data is back from the February ratings period which formally ends today but in many parts of the country, this book may be remembered more for weather coverage than the usual sweeps stunts. The newsrooms that devoted more time to developing credible weather coverage may end up with a ratings boost they could never anticipate.

I recently asked some 5000 of my Facebook friends what they thought about local news, what they liked and what they didn't. I was surprised when many mentioned they watch their local newscasts just for the weather.

Ron Smiley is a Sanibel, Florida realtor and cinematographer. He said:
“I'd rather see more weather. Not interested in eye candy as I'm more interested in someone who knows what they're talking about and has a good track record. Truly not interested in some of the soft, emotional pieces. If it's not hard news, then I'd rather see a well-written, well-shot short about nature.”
Denis Eirikis is a Royal Palm Beach media and marketing specialist. He thinks weather coverage could even be expanded in many markets and believes:
"We watch in greater numbers until the weather forecast, if they tease us at the beginning of the program with 60 seconds of weather and we like our sports last. We also seem to like best when there is one male and one female anchor. Many markets are now testing whether having two weather readers on the same show will increase ratings.”
Bad weather may be good for TV news ratings overall. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found TV News viewership was up a bit last year. Why the spurt? According to Pew, “One likely reason for the 2013 audience growth was the number of major news events that broke during the sweeps periods. In November, the month with the biggest audience increase, the troubled launch of the President Obama’s health care website was big news as was news coverage of big weather events, including tornados in the Midwest, and floods in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.”

But that’s not all some viewers are asking for.

Florida real estate agent Kathleen Morris would like to see less ”Infotainment News” and more news which effects her directly. She said:
"[It] needs balance of some good news, good reporting of relevant stories without the horrible lead ins like B movie titles. The news gives me very depressive feelings so I switch it off. Seems they must have every horrible angle to a story. Even the Justin Bieber story - who cares? Even sports are turning into more celebrities stories than talent and sports. Then reporting a tropical storm sounds like voice over for the Perfect Storm movie. The local news in Miami is horror @ 6 or trying to be all glitz - really feels tired. Ahh Good to rant.”

Are local news shortcomings leaving viewers feeling like they do about the weather itself, which they talk about but believe they can do nothing about, except to turn it off? How do we get them to turn it back on?

My Facebook friend Mary Ann Gibbs suggests:
”Spend more time -- like they used to -- actually covering local news and not just the accidents, murders, other crimes, Justin Bieber's arrest. Cover the stories out of government hall that affect all of us. Tell us about FP&L's efforts to put high voltage towers down South Dixie Highway in Miami-Dade County or efforts, if any, to make sure that the nuclear reactor at Turkey Point is safe. We don't get this kind of critical reporting anymore because the reporters capable of such coverage have been let go because their salaries are too high. They have been replaced with rookies who have no role models to aspire to and think chasing ambulances and police cars is good reporting. No wonder people aren't watching TV news or reading newspapers anymore.”

So hearing all that, should we be thinking about getting back to basics for the May book? Maybe that’s the key. As the saying goes, everything that’s old is new again. Or in the words of Joe Friday, "Just the facts, ma'am."

This year's February book demonstrates that back to basics coverage works: When bad weather is on the way, what do you need to do? What's open and what's closed?

You can debate sweeps plans over and over again but in the end, your audience will tune in for what impacts them the most.

Click here to see more data from the Pew Research Report and check out my Facebook page (you can link to the discussion from the box below) for more viewer comments about television.

You can also add your comments below.

Al Sunshine is a 40-year veteran journalist who recently retired as an investigative reporter at WFOR-TV in Miami, FL.