Ratings Time Produces Flurry of Special Reports on Local TV

 February 6, 1999 | Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)

 | Page: C1 | Section: C1
614 Words

On WTVC-TV9, an exotic dancer gyrates around a pole at Diamonds and Lace while the announcer describes her home life as a wife and mother of three. Scan the dial to WDEF-TV12 and a Hixson couple are praying off their excess pounds. Over on WRCB-TV3, students at Calvary Christian School are reading the Bible in the classroom and the principal is touting the virtues of private schools. Welcome to television news in Chattanooga -- at least during ratings period. For the next four weeks, local TV stations are trying to lure extra viewers with a variety of special reports on everything from stripping moms to divine diets. As one of four ratings periods a year, February is crucial to the $46 million-a-year business of television in Chattanooga. Local television news may comprise only a few hours a day, but broadcasters say news is critical to both the image and finances of local stations. "Local news defines what a station is and helps differentiate you from the others in the market," said Tom Tolar, general manager for WRCB-TV3. That's why Channel 12 continually boasts that it's the station "where local news comes first." Rival WRCB-TV3 touts that it offers "coverage you can count on" and WTVC-TV9 calls itself "News Channel 9." Local news -- a money-losing operation done mainly as a public service in the early days of television -- has emerged as a major revenue source for local stations. As viewers have a growing number of entertainment alternatives, local stations have stressed their unique local news franchises. The success of local news, at least the business side of news, is measured in Chattanooga every three months by just over 1,000 local households that keep diaries for A.C. Nielsen Co. While local station managers complain about the diary method -- they prefer the more accurate meters used in larger markets -- they know their jobs depend upon what viewers write in the diary. "We try to be good every day, but for these 28 days people are keeping score," said Bill Wallace, news director for WRCB. "You just hope they're keeping score the way you want them to." Those keeping score in the last ratings period in November gave a slight edge to WTVC in both the main 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. But WRCB, which was number one in those slots the previous year, is in a virtual dead heat with Channel 9. WDEF-TV, which was Chattanooga's top TV news station two decades ago, trails as the 3rd rated station. WDSI Fox 61 debuted its own hour-long newscast at 10 p.m. last month and will be looking at this month's ratings to help establish its new and expanded news presence. Much of the local news is obviously driven by the breaking news of the day. But stations make sure they have their best people with a little extra during times when Nielsen diaries are being kept. "Nobody takes a vacation during ratings months and we do try to air some of our special reports during these periods," said Steve Hunsicker, news director for WTVC. "We try to consistently do a good jobs with news, but we also offer some extras during sweeps periods." Jim Grimes, general manager for WDEF-TV, agrees. "Local news is very important for a station, both because it is a station's community responsibility and it is vital for the station's business," he said. But Mr. Grimes, whose station is fighting to raise its ratings, complains that the diary method of tracking ratings isn't as reliable as meters since some viewers don't write down the right shows they watch. "This is the only way we have to measure how we are doing and it's obviously very important to us, even though most of us in the industry question its reliability."

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