Networks Go for Sober Sweeps Stories

In the land of TV news, November is traditionally about more than Thanksgiving and leaves changing color it's about ratings sweeps, and with it, sensational news stories about sex, health scares and more sex.

But that was before Sept. 11.

Now, local news teams are struggling to determine how the war on terror has changed the old rules about getting high ratings.

Sweeps, in which the number of viewers who tune into each channel is determined, are held in February, May and November, and help calculate how much stations can charge for commercial spots. Winning the ratings war can make or break a station.

In the past, some stations were notorious for appealing to their audience's baser appetites. Attractive reporters were sent to cover local strip-club horrors, news promotions hectored viewers into tuning in to find out about "the hidden dangers lurking in schools," and medical segments offered solutions to diseases that could be "killing you right now without you even knowing it!"

But this November, instead of teenage sex addicts, foreskin reattachment and strains of hepatitis, expect local news to have a definite terrorism tinge to it.

"It's always been about health, education, consumer affairs and how do I make it from one day to the next," said George Case, Fox News Channel's vice president of news affiliates. "That's all still big, but the slant on it has changed. Instead of 'We're worried about cancer,' it's 'Anthrax might hit me first.'"

The continued focus on Sept. 11 is clear at stations like WMAR in Baltimore, an ABC affiliate that prides itself on staying away from racy subjects. Of the 20 or so pieces the news department is planning this year, half are about the attacks, including a story on local families who are renovating old bomb shelters.

If anything, the programming is an indication of how public appetite has changed, making sweeps pieces essentially in-depth continuations of the coverage of the last seven weeks, assignment manager Chris Ball said.

"Everything has changed since Sept. 11," he said. "But we're not changing the tone from the week before. Has it changed from 60 days ago? Definitely. Because the tone of the nation has changed."

Next to the gravity of a worldwide war on terror and fears of biological, chemical or even nuclear attacks on American soil, a three-minute story on a wet-T-shirt car wash can seem trite, Los Angeles Times television writer Brian Lowry said.

"This stuff like the anthrax scares and the issues of terrorism is so compelling on its own that you don't need to bring out teenage strippers in order to bring out an audience," he said.

In fact, a news director who actually tried to feed a piece like that to a viewership still hungry for the latest anthrax or military updates might find that he or she had committed ratings suicide.

"I think the audience is smarter than that, and has become more sophisticated over the years," Fox News Edge director David Winstrom said after a Fox affiliates conference that included Case.

But Lowry said that viewers in some areas of the country shouldn't be surprised if they see traditionally ratings-friendly topics on their evening news.

"I think there's a tendency for them to reach into their bag of tricks and make things sensational in whatever ways they can," he said. "In Los Angeles, they're still covering movie premieres."

At WSVN Channel 7, the Fox affiliate in Miami, where news director Alice Jacobs has been moving away from sensational stories, the station does plan to run a few pieces that conservative markets might consider risqué. One is about hidden Web cameras ogling women at topless beaches. And of the 22 sweeps stories running in November on the 10 p.m. news, only six will be directly about terrorism.

"I really planned to give the viewers something else everyday that's a good teasable story that has nothing to do with terrorism," Jacobs said.

But among WSVN's more high profile stories will be several in-depth terrorism pieces that Jacobs reserved specifically for sweeps.

And, according to Case, just as with the current war, viewers shouldn't expect a swift conclusion to the terrorism-related news stories.

"It's not going to end anytime soon," he predicted.

News Corp. is the parent company of the Fox news affiliates and Fox News Channel, which operates