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CLEAN SWEEP?

A.C. Nielsen's winter sweeps period just ended last week. Four times a year, the ratings company does some intensive audience surveying; the networks and some cable channels trot out special fare to give their numbers an artificial boost, and the results allow the winners to charge more for advertising.

The unexpected angle to this, though, is that the sweeps period benefits the bottom lines of the leading local stations, not the networks. The big boys set their rates according to Nielsen's more modest year-round audience sampling. Only the local stations adjust their ad rates according to the results of the quarterly special-programming orgies at network level. The locals get only two minutes to make money out of every half hour in prime time, so every station manager prays that his or her network comes through with big ratings, while not driving viewers away with extravaganzas that backfire (Janet Jackson's breast, a comatose Oscar ceremony).

It's too early to tell who baked the brains of the most couch potatoes this past month, but to get ready for the new numbers, let's take a look at how local programming (meaning news) fared during last November's sweeps.

In the morning news slot--the network-dominated 6-9 a.m. period, with local news inserts--NBC's venerable Today show put KVOA Channel 4 way out ahead of its competitors last fall, with ABC's Good Morning America giving KGUN Channel 9 a boost among women age 25-54, CBS affiliate KOLD Channel 7 lagging way behind, and KMSB Channel 11 barely registering with the news show it had just started importing from Phoenix. This time around, it'll be interesting to see if KMSB is managing to build an audience with a local show that isn't quite local.

KVOA maintained its lead with the noon news; KOLD, which had edged out KVOA for first place last May, took a serious dip to third place at noon, just barely behind KGUN.

With the approach of dinnertime, KGUN's early, 4:30 p.m. newscast basically had the slot to itself, news-wise, and pulled in a big share of the audience against its competitors' game and talk shows. But come 5 o'clock, KGUN slipped down to duke it out with KOLD for second and third place, with KVOA's local news continuing to draw the greatest share of the audience. Interestingly, KOLD's Mindy Blake and Barbara Grijalva attracted significantly more women ages 25-54 than KGUN's Julie Myers and silver-fox Guy Atchley (who step in while 4:30 and 6 p.m. anchor Colleen Bagnall takes her dinner break). Blake and Grijalva certainly held their own against KVOA's Tom McNamara and Martha Vasquez, who are also exceptionally popular with female grownups. Viewers started to drift away from all the newscasts at 6 p.m., although KVOA did maintain a lead.

(The sitcoms on the independent stations, meanwhile, just couldn't compete with the local news shows; only the 6 p.m. Friends reruns on KWBA (Cox Cable Channel 8; broadcast Channel 58) even came close to paying the electric bill during the network-affiliates' news slot.)

At 10 p.m., KVOA maintained its hold on the audience, with KGUN making some gains at KOLD's expense.

Interestingly, KGUN fared significantly better with its weekend newscasts, benefiting from a half-hour jump with its 5 p.m. Saturday report, and taking a big lead at 10 p.m. Sundays. Otherwise, it was the usual KVOA success story.

Despite all the complaints that you can't tell the local news shows apart, plenty of people seem to be sorting them out. Cynics would credit the popularity of NBC's Tom Brokaw-led evening news with KVOA's dinnertime success, figuring that people are just too lazy to change the channel. But if laziness were the deciding factor, KOLD would fare much better at 10 p.m., since CBS's primetime shows are generally much more popular locally than NBC's.


THE CORRECTIONS

There's something grossly incorrect about newspaper corrections, including those at our two local dailies: They are deliberately curt to avoid assigning blame for the mistakes. (The Star's are so curt that you can barely figure out where the mistake occurred.) But a correction, though an admirable admission of error and an attempt to set the record straight, necessarily compromises the newspaper's reputation for accuracy, and it implicitly (in the minds of readers) blames reporters for everything that goes wrong.

Yes, reporters make mistakes. But sometimes they get bad info from a source (like incorrect dates of a performance), and often, reporters get screwed in the editing process.

I hope editors at the Star and Citizen have learned something from the latest, and quickly notorious, foul-up at the Los Angeles Times. A couple of weeks ago, Mark Swed reviewed a Richard Strauss opera he described as "pro-life." Some foolish editor, without consulting Swed, changed that adjective to the standard Associated Press term "anti-abortion." But the opera has nothing to do with abortion; it simply affirms life.

So the Times ran a correction, phrased so generically that Swed seemed to be the one who made the error. Swed had a conniption, and in an unusual move, the Times corrected the correction to specify that the error arose in the editing process.

Whereupon the paper's reader advocate issued an internal memo reminding everyone that the Times policy is not to assign blame, because "the readers don't care."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Readers do care if reporters and critics are made to seem like idiots; who will trust their judgment and accuracy if mistakes always seem to be their fault?

So corrections should always specify the source of errors--a wire service, a source, an editor, or, yes, a reporter. Admitting guilt without assigning responsibility serves no one's interests--except those of error-prone editors.

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