Tuesday, November 14, 2006

If it bleeds, it leads ... but does it get viewers?

According to the folks at the Committee of Concerned Journalists, not really. The CCJ's latest "On Background" e-mail has some interesting stats. The essence is below:

We compared viewership data to the content analysis of the 5-year Local TV News Study of 34,000 stories from 2,419 newscasts at 154 stations in 50 markets over five years and found:

Viewers are less interested in being scared, shocked or amazed than they are in being informed.
  • The ratings of broadcasts that led with public safety were no better or worse than newscasts that led with less “exciting” topics.

  • One in every eight (12%) local news stories focused on subjects or presented information in a way that might shock, scare or amaze viewers. This approach did nothing to improve viewership using any of the measures we examined.

  • On the late news, where concern about audience retention is highest, there is no significant statistical link between lead stories that typically feature flashing lights and yellow police tape and the ability of the broadcast to retain audience.

  • Having a reporter on the scene of a story was not a factor in retaining or building audience. This is not an indictment of live coverage – but most live shots don’t show news, they showcase reporters. Of the 34,000 stories we deconstructed, live action occurred in 422 stories or 1.2%.

The reason many public safety stories fail to “hook” viewers is because they are basically hollow. When they are more complete, however, they get better ratings.

  • Public safety stories did better on the early news than the late news. Early news stories were more complete – more information, sources, context. They were more likely to employ story-telling techniques such as central characters or time lines.

  • On late broadcasts, where public safety news is often a late-breaking “incident” (about which few details are known) reporters spent more time vamping – stating the obvious, the irrelevant or, worse, just speculating.

  • Half of all crime stories in the study were based on the thinnest kind of attribution – sources mentioned only in passing, anonymous sources, or no sources at all. Another quarter relied on only a single source – for example, a police department’s public information officer.

  • A spot news story with three or more sources got a third of a ratings point among households and a quarter of a ratings point among younger viewers more than a spot news story based on anonymous sources or no sources at all.
Yeah, but try selling that to TV stations. I was at a statewide police public information officers' meeting the other day, and one of the panelists asked how many had seen increased contacts from TV newsrooms starting in mid-October, especially requests under the Freedom of Information act. Most of the hands in the room went up.

Of course. It's sweeps month.

Walter Dean, director of broadcast for the CCJ, notes that additional research will be published next year in “We Interrupt This Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too,” from Cambridge University Press.

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