Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Armstrong Uses "Nielsengate" Allegation to Bash KEYT

Yesterday I mentioned that local TV stations KSBY and KEYT are in a contretemps over TV ratings. KSBY, the NBC affiliate out of San Luis Obispo, apparently complained to the Nielsen rating service that Santa Barbara's KEYT had obtained the addresses of the Nielsen rating households for last November's "sweeps" ratings period, dispatched reporters to those neighborhoods to do live shots or stories hoping the Nielsen families would notice the presence of the news crews, tune in to see what was going on in the neighborhood and increase the ratings for KEYT's newscasts.

The "sweeps" months, November, February and May, are important in the TV industry because the ratings for those periods are used to set advertising rates.

TV stations have a long history of pulling "stunts" during sweeps periods to bolster ratings. I grew up in L.A. and I remember during one sweeps period KNBC had Kelly Lange, who at that time was its weather reporter, doing a live shot from the beach, in her bikini.

Yesterday in the News-Press, editorial page editor Travis Armstrong jumped into the ratings controversy story and turned it into yet another opportunity to get into a snit over the reluctance of anybody at KEYT to talk to him about it or even to return his phone calls.

Let me tell you why Armstrong's article is bad journalism.

Armstrong isn't tackling this story because he wants to get to the bottom of what's going on or even because he wants to use the story to sell newspapers. He's going after KEYT because he wants to embarrass them. It's a payback because he thinks KEYT has been too aggressive in its coverage over the last year and a half of the turmoil at the News-Press.

If a story is truly newsworthy you assign it to a reporter to investigate, not to the editorial page editor to use it as an opportunity for ambush journalism.

Rather than explain why this story, if true, is significant, Armstrong focused on the unwillingess of anyone at KEYT to talk about it. Armstrong wrote:

Two people who could help clear this up are KEYT General Manager Cathy Jacquemin and News Director Jim Bunner. But they're being mum. Both have refused to return the many phone messages I've left for them since last week. You'd think they'd be eager to respond regarding KSBY's discussions with Nielsen.

Of course when was the last time Armstrong's boss, Wendy McCaw, ever deigned to return a phone call?

The News-Press is hardly a shining example of willingness to report that which is unflattering to it's own corporate image. After all, when Audit Bureau of Circulation figures showing a dramatic drop in the paper's readership were released last year, its not like the paper reported it with a headline saying "News-Press readership at all time low."

And while I'm on the subject, why are the readership numbers of the News-Press in a free fall? You can't blame it all on the continuing rancor or on the battle over unionization. A fair share of it has to be attributed to the fact that McCaw and Armstrong's motivation in covering certain stories, the recent coverage of former city councilman Brian Barnwell's divorce proceedings is a prime example, is not based on the newsworthiness or the public's interest in the story, but rather because it is a vehicle for retribution.

So what is the real significance of "Nielsengate?" Since Armstrong couldn't be bothered to tell us, let me take a crack at it.

When I ran what allegedly had happened at KEYT by a friend who worked for many years in local TV news in Los Angeles his first response was, "Ooo, they are going to get delisted for that."

Hans Laetz, who formerly worked as an assignment desk editor at KTLA and KABC, went on to elaborate; "Neilsen rules prohibit station promotions that are 'designed to influence or change the viewing habits of Nielsen Media Research sample panel members.' If KEYT is even suspected of doing that, their contract with Neilsen allows the company to delist them with no legal recourse."

I asked Laetz if targeting "sweeps" households is unethical? "Yes and no," he replied. "If no diaries are in the Antelope Valley, no features will get done out there you can bank on it. Certain major LA TV stations know exactly where the diaries are and take care in story selection accordingly. It's all very hushed and subtle, however, nothing so stupid or blatant as stapling a memo on a wall." (Which was alleged to have occurred in KEYT's instance.)

"(KEYT) news director Jim Bunner (who formerly worked at KNBC in L.A.) is an intense competitor and an old friend," Laetz added. "I don't think he would knowingly violate the rules. The consequences are severe and reverberate far beyond the newsroom department at the station for which he is responsible. Delisting a station removes it from most ad agencies' buying lists. That means a lot of money in a larger market, where most sales are agency buys. In a smaller market like the San Luis Obispo-Santa Maria-Santa Barbara hyphenate, however, where ad sales are less agency-oriented and more street-driven, it probably won't spank KEYT badly."

Another source I'm in touch with on this issue, one who used to work in local TV news here in Santa Barbara and who prefers to remain anonymous, took a dimmer view of the allegations against KEYT. "KEYT had a very good November ratings book . . . as a result, KEYT is charging advertising clients more money." Of course, if it is ever proven that those ratings numbers were manipulated, advertisers might want some of that money back. (And I should emphasize, as far as I can determine, Nielsen rating service has not as of this writing concluded that KEYT did anything wrong.)

In any event, it kind of makes you long for the old days when if a news director wanted to pump up the ratings during sweeps he'd send a female weather reporter out to the beach to do the weather report in her bikini.

And speaking of weather (not that we want to see him reporting on it in a speedo much less a bikini) the rumour is true, morning weather guy Peter Kulevich is leaving KEYT to return to the Palm Springs area where his fiance lives and where he owns a home.

Hopefully there are no "Nielsengates" awaiting him out in the desert.

For another perspective on Armstrong and "Nielsengate," check out the discussion post at Blogabarbara.