Media Watch

TV News Gears for February Sweeps Battle

The February television sweeps period gets underway in a few days, and the three major network affiliates hope the Nielsens reflect very different things.

KVOA wants to build momentum, KOLD wants to stem a possible tide and KGUN hopes external factors can help to show dividends in their upgraded product.

While it rests technically within the Nielsen ratings' official margin of error, KVOA, again No. 1 in the market based on results from the November book, wants to separate itself from KOLD, which held the top spot for more than two years.

"We've made a concentrated effort to focus on local stories that mean something to our viewers," said KVOA news director Kathleen Choal. "I think people are recognizing that. We have a stable anchor corps, and I think that plays a role."

As is the case with every other station in the market, KVOA has plans to unveil special features in February, although a certain professional paranoia leads Choal not to divulge specifics.

"Our investigative unit is one of the things we focus on here. Because investigations take weeks or months, depending on the stories, we tend to put those during the ratings period," Choal said. "We do them outside the ratings period, too. We don't just do special stories because it's ratings. You tend to see more promotion of those stories because it's ratings. While we do have some things we've been working on that will run in February, it doesn't change our news philosophy. We're still aggressive, we're still going after local stories, and we still believe we have better content than the competition."

The chief competition remains KOLD, the once top dog that lost some of its bite. Jim Arnold, KOLD's vice president/general manager, hopes the dip was caused by a rash of changes highlighted by the summer departures of news anchors Kris Pickel and Randy Garsee.

"I wasn't thrilled with the book, but considering everything that went on prior to the book and leading up to it, people don't adjust to change easily," Arnold said. "We went through some changes over a two-month period that in a market our size usually happens over a year and a half. We're a transition market, so people come and go, but we were a little worried about that. What I did like about the book is that in total viewers in the households and in key demographics we are technically No. 2, but within the margin of error. Three-tenths of a point separates 1 and 2. Given all the changes that went through the station at that time, I'm very pleased. These are the questions we all have, except the leading station in every book."

KVOA's November win ends what was a strong streak for the local CBS affiliate, which not that long ago brought up the rear in local news ratings. KOLD, meanwhile, remains in transition. Heather Rowe was tabbed as Pickel's replacement, but the permanent male anchor position has yet to be filled. As a result, Arnold's ultimate focus is down the road. He hopes the November results reflect overall changes and not a long-term slip in viewership.

"I can remember six years ago when I got here, and a year after that we started making some climbs. Our competitors said, 'Oh, it's just a wobble.' Well, we had a wobble five books straight," Arnold said. "Five books is not a wobble. We set that trend and continued to build on it. I'm looking at (November) as a wobble. The February book will tell us a little bit, but the May book will be the all-telling because hopefully in February we'll have our male anchor announcement, and it will take us a while to graph that and get up to speed and get the promotion going on where we can promote more than an interim team."

Arnold and KGUN general manager Andrew Stewart also point to an under-representation of returned Nielsen diaries in the market.

"Without trying to sound like I'm crying sour grapes here, they're not doing their job in giving us an accurate representation of the market," said Stewart. "Statistically, they'll tell us it's fine even though they underdelivered the ... samples by 10 percent. At that point it's a matter of luck of the draw, where the books fall, and there is some luck involved. Until we get to the point where we're a metered market, these ratings are always going to come into question."

But KGUN's bigger issue is its perennial third-place finish. It's not for lack of financial commitment. The ABC affiliate spent some serious coin upgrading its studio and talent, most notably luring weather personality Erin Christiansen from KOLD. It has Guy Atchley, the most recognizable news anchor in the Old Pueblo; Jennifer Waddell, who may be as good as anyone in the market behind the desk; and Dave Silver, who, with the departure of Dan Ryan at KVOA, now has more sports experience in Tucson than the rest of the competition combined.

And still, KGUN is No. 3.

"Top to bottom, our product appears to look better than it did; we're just not seeing those tangible results in the Nielsens yet," said Stewart, who noted that KGUN showed some good signs in the July book. "We all hoped we would, based on the amount of work, time and money we put into improving our product."

ABC didn't help either, but Stewart hopes the KGUN news product benefits from stronger programming like the Academy Awards and more episodes of Lost.

"We had some disappointments in terms of our lead-in with ABC, some quirky things happening program-wise," he said. "The one positive we can take away from that is we were the one station that actually held our audience from the 9 o'clock program into our 10 o'clock news. So people are staying with us to watch the news. Both of our competitors lost big chunks of their audience going from their 9 o'clock shows to their 10 o'clock news. We think we have a solid core in terms of our fan base. We need more people to sample our product. We think once that happens we'll gain new viewers."