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Vince Vitrano: Not For Broadcast



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I'm about to reveal a super secret in the television news industry... it matters to us if people watch.

There, I said it.

I can't think of anything less fresh than a blogger, newspaper writer, or radio personality quipping about the big "industry secret" that November (February, May, and July too) is a ratings month in TV. They're at it again... ripping on the promotions and trumped up efforts to attract viewers.

The guys at our own FM station worked over my co-anchor Susan this morning, teasing her about the promos. An ex-newspaper writer got off  a blog about how we're running stories threatening that folks' coffee makers are going to kill them. Okay, that was actually pretty funny. That said, this dude used to write for the harbinger of great Journalism that recently ran a front page article on how people are getting scalp burns at the salon! NOOOO! Or how about the issue pictured to the right... where what happened on TV the night before was front page news.

Hello pot... this is kettle. You're black.

So why don't we just put it all out there on the table... cards face up. Here are a few questions and answers about ratings, why they matter, why they matter more this month, and why that should come as no surprise to anyone.

Is making money important in the television news industry?

Yes. We are a business. We don't make money, we don't survive, so yes, we want to make money. That doesn't make us bad or impure, it means we're a business like anybody else. We are journalists and we produce a news program, but that doesn't mean we don't want it to be profitable. We're not public television. If a great news story airs on television and nobody watches it, is it still a great news story?

Wow... I just blew myself away with that question.

How do you make money? 

We make money by selling advertising.

How do you figure out how much to charge for advertising?

Advertisers want the most bang for their buck. They will pay more to advertise during more popular time slots on more popular stations. Thus, the equation works essentially this way: the more people watching... the more advertisers will pay to buy a spot during a given broadcast.

How do we know who's watching what when?

Ratings. Yes, now we're finally to the word ratings.

A company called Nielsen measures television viewership in a variety of ways. Simply put, the company selects a random sample in every television market in the country. This group is monitored by computer or "meter" as we call them. Those who agree to be monitored also fill out diaries. These folks report to the Nielsen company everything about themselves (age, gender, etc.) and then report what they watch on television.

From this sample, Nielsen extrapolates the total number of people estimated to be watching a given show at a given time. The ratings. It's a really small sample, for the record. Right now there are approximately 370 homes in our entire viewing area (about 3 million people) that are being monitored. That's one of those meeters pictured to the right.

What, then, is a ratings month?

We're in one right now. The traditional "ratings months" or "sweeps months" as they're sometimes called happen 4 times a year. November and May are the two biggest, followed by February and July in that order of importance.

In major markets, Nielsen measures ratings all year. Still, the afore mentioned months are used to set the rates for advertising until the next "ratings month" appears.

So our sales staff will sell spots to advertisers based on our ratings performance in November. They'll use those numbers until we get new ones after February.

Why do promotions and commercials for the news seem "sensationalistic" during ratings months?

So at this point, the answer to this question ought to be pretty clear. While it's always important to us that people trust us for their news, it's of particular importance that they watch during a ratings month. It's why we save long investigations, and big stories to debut during these months. Yes, we're hopeful the big stories, and commercials for them, will attract as many viewers as possible.

I don't think any of this is something to feel guilty about. The fact is, my livelihood (and that of everybody in this newsroom) is largely determined by a handful of people who agreed to let the Nielsen company invade their privacy for a while. If people don't watch in these very important months, I don't have a job. They'll find some other monkey to sit out on that desk, hoping people will watch him instead.

So there it is... ratings in a nutshell. I'm happy to entertain any questions you may have left. I'll gladly post the answers as well as comments on this blog.

Oh, and please, please, please watch us in the morning this month!




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