Local TV Stations Are Waging A High-Tech, High-Stakes Battle for Ratings, News and Revenues.
And the Winner is …
(This magazine cover story about Tampa Bay’s TV news wars, circa 1988, is posted by popular request and with permission of Maddux Report publisher Carlen Maddux. Consider it a tribute to the magazine’s late, long-time editor — and our friend, Barry Bradley.)
By Barry Bradley
June 1988 Cover Story
In the old days, there was Hugh Smith, Roy Leep and Andy Hardy, the experienced and unquestioned masters of television news, weather and sports. The trio, with a combined tenure at WTVT Channel 13 of roughly 80 years, got the station to the pinnacle of bay-area broadcasting and kept it there.
The news team at WXFL-Channel 8 had self-respect, but little else. And WTSP-Channel lO was, in the words of news-anchor John Wilson, “a joke, a miserable joke.” Each runner-up was willing to settle for second-place money and walk away quietly, leaving Channel 13 the spoils befitting the victor.
All was well. Everyone knew his place.
Then the unthinkable happened. Channel 10 bought that blasted helicopter and began to get serious about TV news. In retaliation, the team at Channel 8 bought a larger, faster helicopter and shook itself from a lethargic slumber. Each of these upstarts had the audacity to think the entrenched powers at Channel 13 could be beaten.
Nothing’s been the same since.
The result was an expensive race for techno-toys and newsgathering goodies where each station’s equipment purchase was quickly matched by the other two. If salaries for reporters and anchors rose at one station, they rose at the others. When one announced a male-female anchor team, all followed suit.
In short, each station is spending millions in a tight, competitive battle for supremacy in a war for news ratings, share points and advertising dollars. In a sprawling, lucrative TV market like Tampa Bay (13th largest in the nation), local news is the small hub in a very large financial wheel. To borrow from one station’s promotional spots, “News Comes First,” and he with the best Neilsen numbers laughs loudest-all the way to the bank.
“News defines who you are,” says Jim Saunders, general manager at Channel 8. “When people talk about a station, they define it in terms of news and the news anchors. They don’t think of us as the Bill Cosby station, they think of us as the station with Bob Hite and Gayle Sierens.”
But there’s more at stake here than just image. A station’s news operation has a major impact on revenues generated throughout the entire local broadcast schedule.
“We could push a button and bring in nothing but CBS Network (programming) and we would survive,” says Hugh Smith at Channel 13. “But we wouldn’t be the thriving station we are now without the news operation.”
To help put this in perspective, industry sources say the big three networks lose from $50-million to $100-million on their news operations each year. Naturally, they make up the loss with other programming, but they are willing to lose on news because it’s so important to the identity of the network. Simply put, so goes the news, so goes the station.
That thought is seconded by John Yurko, a consultant with Frank Magid and Associates of Cedar’ Rapids, Iowa, the nation’s largest broadcasting consulting firm. “The only thing that is sure in local television is that news is the most important thing they do. And in the Tampa Bay area you are seeing the beginnings of a news war.”
The news war between the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, as each invades the other’s sacred territory, is getting most of the attention in the Tampa Bay area. But a more subtle, albeit critical, news war is being waged by the local TV stations in the fight for market dominance. As evidence, Yurko points out the heavy spending for new equipment, increasing on-air and print media promotion of TV news teams, the hiring of additional staff and the addition of expanded news programs.
This war is also being fought at the corporate level, with each station owner ready, willing and able to pump money into station improvements in this fast-growing, competitive market.
“You have to remember that 13 ‘s dominance was so overwhelming that it took a major and serious financial commitment by 8 and 10 to become competitive,” says Yurko.
That corporate commitment apparently is there. Under the ownership of Gaylord Broadcasting Corp., industry sources say, Channel 13 never had the financial support it now enjoys after being purchased by George Gillett of Nashville. The Gillett group, owners of 11 other TV stations around the country, is a “top of the line, big-time contender” able to bring big dollars to the table. As proof of the company’s deep pockets, Gillett paid $365-million for Channel 13 last year, a figure estimated to be 10 times the station’s annual revenue.
The two other players at this table also are ready to deal for high stakes. Media General Corp. owns Channel 8, the Tampa Tribune and several other big-time TV stations and newspapers. And Great American Broadcasting Corp., which recently acquired Channel 10 from the Taft Broadcasting Group., owns four other major-market TV stations and 16 radio stations.
Corporate muscle is firmly behind all the news operations in the Tampa Bay area, says Clarence McKee, president of Channel 13, “In the last six months we have spent $l-million on the expansion of our news operation,” McKee says. “And we are committing even more significant amounts of money in the near future. We call it investment spending.”
That investment, McKee says, is intended to keep Channel 13 at the top of the Bay-area news pile, and ensure continued profitability for the station, despite the hot breath of his two major competitors as they inch their way up the ratings ladder.
Although exact figures were unavailable because of proprietary concerns, industry sources say each station spends between $4-million and $6-million each year on its news operation, a figure that was substantiated by the general manager of one local station who, because the other two stations did not reveal their budgets, preferred anonymity on that one issue. (Who spends the most is anyone’s guess). In addition, capital outlay for major equipment, like helicopters, satellite trucks and special-effects generators pushes the annual budgets even higher.
“Channel 10 got aggressive first when they bought that helicopter,” says Saunders at Channel 8. “And then we got aggressive and bought a helicopter, It’s the general nature of the business. Everybody wants to be the best and there’s a certain amount of keeping up with the Joneses.”
Whether the impetus to spend big money on local news came from corporate boardrooms or local newsrooms depends on the station. But for Bob Hite, co-anchor at Channel 8, the answer is clear.
“Media General (Channel S’s owner) didn’t say ‘Oh my God. they don’t have a helicopter. They don’t have the right video cameras.’ It took reporters in the trenches bitching at the news director about the competitive situation we have here,” Hite says. “And the same thing happened at Channel 10.”
Moreover, something else happened at Channel 10 nearly two years ago that serves to illustrate this market’s competitiveness, and which also is part of the reason for the station’s current lagging position in the ratings.
In line with conventional thinking that stations in a market this size should have at least a full hour of local news in the evening rather than just a half-hour, Channel lO expanded its 6 to 6:30 p.m. broadcast to 6 to 7 p.m. But more than conventional wisdom was at play here. Channel 13 has for years served up an hour of news between 5 and 6 p.m., which is followed by an additional hour between 6 and 7. Channel 10 felt success was certain.
It was a disaster, says John Wilson. “We lost four rating points in 10 months. We plowed up our audience and hurt them by making them sit through an hour of local news, and then choose between (ABC Anchorman Peter) Jennings and (CBS Anchorman Dan) Rather (at 7 p. m.). We tried to change viewer habits too drastically and we failed.”
It’s that kind of thinking, says Yurko, which speaks to this market’s growing competitiveness and maturity-the willingness to step out and try an expanded broadcast when market conditions justify.
That’s the reasoning behind Channel 8 ‘s recent announcment of an expanded news program at 5 p. m. beginning Sept. 5. Though Saunders could not provide many details, sources say Channel8’s 5 p.m. news will be somewhat similar to Channel 13 ‘s, while leaving its well established 6 p.m. broadcast intact.
Channel 10 executives say the experience has not soured them on trying an expanded newscast again in the near future, but one wonders where the station might have been had the experiment worked.
“Channel 10 was like a rising star,” says Gayle Sierens, co-anchor with Hite at Channel 8, “They went from basically nothing to something very quickly. They were breathing down the necks of 13 and ::hey were ready to lay claim to being a new leader. But going to an hour really hurt them. Timing is everything in this business.”
Just as local stations can improve a network’s rating (and almost ever the other way around), bad timing can be worse than a bad show mat no one wants to watch. The bottom line is ratings and shares.
Herewith please find the MADDUX REPORT’s exclusive explanation of these baffling and confusing terms gleaned from hours of intensive interviews and considerable beard-stroking.
A “rating” figure is the percentage of the total number of televisions in a market area that are tuned in to a particular station. For example, if there were only 100 televisions in the Bay area, and 20 were tuned to Channel 13, the station’s rating would be 20-or 20 percent of the total number of televisions in the market.
“Share” involves only those televisions that are turned on at any one time. The share figure shows how many of those turned-on sets are tuned in to a particular station. If, for example, 50 of the area’s total 100 sets are on, and half of those are watching 13, the station’s share would be 50-or 50 percent of only those sets that are turned on. A share of 30 is considered good for a news program, but that same share for a Super Bowl would be disastrous.
Rating is generally more important, sources say, because that involves raw numbers-huge raw numbers. A share, also important, shows which program in a time period was most watched, but says nothing about the raw numbers of people watching.
Confused? Good. So is everybody else.
But what’s at stake here is not confusing-money. It comes as no surprise that stations charge for commercial time based on rating points. That charge is roughly $100 per point for a 30-second time slot.
Recent figures show Channel 13 to have a rating of 18 for its 6 p.m. newscast. That translates into a cost of $1,800 for a 30-second slot during the news. Channel 8 and 10 have ratings of 15 and 13 respectively, (These ratings change four times a year during “sweeps” periods when new surveys are completed by the nation’s two large rating houses — Neilsen and Arbitron).
To put it into better perspective, consider that each station has about 20 commercial slots during the 6 p.m. newscast, every day of .the year. If a station’s rating goes up only one point, the difference can be an additional $750,000 at the end of the year. If ratings go up for all of a station’s news broadcasts, annual revenues can take a quantum leap.
Partly to blame for the Bay area’s late awakening, according to Yurko, is the market’s reputation on Madison Avenue.
“The Tampa Bay market has not been perceived as a major market until recently,” Yurko says. “For many years it was a sleepy, backwater news market because of all the old folks.”
But what’s the connection between an elderly population and the quality of local news? The answer, as with most things, concerns money.
National advertisers spend boatloads of money with the three major networks for air time. And some of that money flows down to the network affiliates. National advertisers also buy commercial time from local stations. But there was a reluctance to buy local time in a market dominated by the elderly when younger audiences could be had elsewhere.
“National advertisers wanted the 25 to 54 age group,” Yurko explains. “They thought the only things they could sell down there were adult Pampers and Porcelana Skin Cream.”
This perception kept national advertising dollars away from this market, which kept revenue down, which limited the amount any station could spend on its news operation.
“But that’s changing,” Yurko adds. “They began to realize that the 50-plus age group was the future, and now the ad rates are increasing to levels of other similar markets.”
But does all this new equipment, revenue and competitive spirit translate into better broadcast news?
“Absolutely,” says Ken Middleton, news director at Channel 10.
“There was no equity when 13 was the clear leader. Today we’re playing on a level field. And many times, the viewer is on the fence because all the stations are doing a good job. They may not have a favorite channel. A competitive race definitely benefits the viewer.”
It also affects the way news is covered, says Kelly Craig, co-anchor at Channel 13. “San Antonio was a much different market. (San Antonio) was much more of a spot-news market. We had a saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ Here we all take a more thoughtful approach to the news and how it affects people’s lives.”
When it comes to equipment, Sierens says the spending spree has resulted in a far more sophisticated newscast.
“Several years ago you had to hold your breath to get a piece of equipment or a trip someplace,” Sierens says. “Now there’s virtually nothing we can’t go in and ask for and not expect to get.”
But new equipment doesn’t necessarily translate into better news, she adds.
“Now we have more toys than we know what to do with. We don’t even use some stuff as much as we should. I don’t think the average viewer knows if the Quantel (special effects device) is down. The bottom line is the quality of the reporting staff.”
With the three stations reaching a sort of parity in quality as well as the ratings race, you wonder how a viewer is able to discern the often tiny differences in newscasts. Few people, after all, have three TV sets and three video recorders-not to mention the time-to make empirical comparisons between stations.
“We in this business are always making comparisons,” says Sheryl Browne, co-anchor at Channel 10. “Did we get beaten on a story? Could we have done better? And I’m not sure if we’re doing this for the viewer or ourselves. It’s one way of constantly trying to improve our product.
“I think we have a very forgiving viewership,” Browne adds. “People will watch you if they like you. But then in this market I think they like everybody. I wonder sometimes how much difference it makes to people out there.”
Because of the relative equality that exists in the market, says Yurko, more substantive differences between the stations will have to wait until the Bay area becomes, in the parlance of the profession, a better news town.
“All the things that make it a dull news town also make it a nice place to live,” says Yurko. ”As the Bay area grows up-and it will happen-you will face the unfortunate issues that other large cities are facing … like Miami. There’s always the paradox between exciting news and a less desirable lifestyle.”
Stay tuned. We’ll have film at eleven.
(c) 1988 by Maddux Report. All Rights Reserved.
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