For the record, given a choice, KEYE-TV news viewers overwhelmingly prefer to watch a feature on the world's smallest cat over stories on a "Human Spider-Man" or a Hemingway look-alike contest. But, in a sense, the vote was rigged. "Animal stories are pretty much going to win every time," said KEYE News Director Tim Gardner, reciting one of the truisms of modern TV news.
The vote was the result of KEYE's "Big Vote Tuesday," which allows viewers to vote online to pick a story that will air on that night's 10pm newscast, part of the longtime rating doormat's new strategy to grab the attention of Austin's fickle TV news viewers. "Innovation is crucial to this station and any station when you are trying to get people to check you out," said Gardner, who took over the station's news department three years ago.
Executives of the CBS owned-and-operated affiliate say "Big Vote Tuesday" adds an "interactive component" to newscasts. But critics charge it is also the type of newsroom promotion that takes a pickaxe to the wall traditionally separating marketing and news. "Basically you're turning news into a form of game show," said Don Heider, who teaches broadcast journalism at UT. "To me that's not meaningful, helpful feedback. It's basically a gimmick."
In the last year, KEYE has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade the news department building a new set, buying "real time" Doppler weather radar, and hiring anchor Judy Maggio from rival KVUE. This September the station will launch a new weekend morning show, a familiar move around the country as stations look to find new sources of revenue from news departments. "We've become a very aggressive news organization," said KEYE station general manager Gary Schneider (who is leaving this month to take a similar position in Dallas).
That has meant everything from eliminating several minutes of commercials in the newscasts to hawking free gas during weather segments. (KEYE also has an agreement with the Chronicle, whereby entertainment reporters occasionally appear on newscasts.)
In another boundary-pushing move, the station is selling sponsorships to a segment called "My Hometown," which spotlights a different community each day. Although weather and sports reports are commonly sponsored, it still raises eyebrows within the industry when a news segment is sponsored by a company that may be involved in the story.
KEYE's "Hometown" segments, which are usually sponsored by a bank or similar institution from the target community, are friendly snapshots, typically featuring one of the station's top reporters or anchors doing a live shot from the town square during the 5, 6, and 10pm newscasts. Georgetown's segment spotlighted a story on the local candle factory; Marble Falls featured Maggio introducing a story on a vineyard. Each segment usually includes a jovial interview with the town's mayor or a local official.
"We would do it whether it was sponsored or not," Schneider said. News Director Gardner said the segment was developed by the newsroom and there are no discussions between sales and news producers. "The only time I know what [the sales department] is doing is when I see the spots on the air," Gardner said.
When Gardner, who headed the old KTBC in the Eighties, took over KEYE, he decided they were "not doing a very good job of reaching out beyond the city limits of Austin." Stations around the country frequently use segments like my "My Hometown" to woo outlying communities, which are difficult to cover with ever-thinning newsroom staffs (and there are usually a few families in each community reporting to the Nielsen ratings service). Critics often call it "chamber of commerce" journalism, a chance to offer viewers a little bit of hometown cheerleading.
"The stories should be ones of value, not just a means to an end," said Aly Colón, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving journalism.
Gardner notes that local newscasts throughout the country are evolving more toward the easy reading, lifestyle-focused feel of USA Today rather than the hard news of The New York Times. "My goal is to put on a newscast with integrity, but not be such a stuffed shirt that I don't realize that people do have interests beyond the top story of the day," Gardner said.
Although Gardner says he feels no pressure to push the ratings, within a few months of breaking open the piggy bank for the new set and Maggio's contract, the station clamped down on the newsroom's budget. The assistant news director was laid off and management put new restrictions on the use of take-home vehicles. The station also joined its sister CBS stations in dropping its CNN feed, a cost-saving move that dramatically reduced its supply of national and international news.
So far the results of the investments have been, as they say, mixed. KEYE's ratings are up in most news periods, including a second place at 5pm in the most recent ratings period although KEYE usually still trails rivals KXAN and KVUE, and, on many days, reruns of The Simpsons.
Schneider expects "Big Vote Tuesday" to eventually attract 600 to 1,000 votes a week, once viewership levels rise in the fall. But the contest between the smallest cat and the human Spidey attracted a grand total of 47 votes, which doesn't bode well for the experiment in interactive newscasting.
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