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ANATOMY OF A CABLE NEWS SHOW: GETTING RATINGS AND GETTING THE “GET”
Television news shouldn’t be boring, and doesn’t need to be. Engaging the viewer is not “dumbing down”! Competition is a good thing.
WINNING THE RATINGS WAR
Every afternoon I do something that most people in television news say they don’t do. I look at the ratings from the night before. I sit at my desk with these Excel spreadsheets laid out before me, and I immerse myself in the business of television ratings, studying who watches, when, why, and how.
Why do some people in TV deny they do this? Even stranger, maybe these people are not fudging-maybe they’re telling the truth and they actually never do sneak a peak. To listen to them, you’d think that monitoring ratings is somehow degrading, that it sullies their hands to actually care whether viewers are tuned in.
Not me. I’m competitive; I need and like to have a method of keeping score. I want to win my time slot, to beat out the competition, and I also care about my viewers and don’t want to put them to sleep! What’s wrong with that? It’s no compromise of integrity, journalistic or otherwise, to keep my audience engaged. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to watch your show if you are on television! It’s my duty and also my privilege.
How do I know if I’m doing a good job or not unless I have some score to examine? I use my ratings to figure out what it is the viewers want and respond to. Believe me, it doesn’t feel good when the ratings go down, but it does give me the opportunity to evaluate: What didn’t work? What could I have done differently? How can I improve? The law is a service industry, and so is television-or at least it should be.
Ratings are upped when viewers tune in and stay tuned in, and it feels like a stamp of approval. Getting great ratings is fun, like winning a race, but it’s also rewarding. It means that the product I worked hard on all day long was a good one. Viewers voted!
It’s a big fat lie when people in the news business claim, “I don’t care about ratings.” When someone declares himself indifferent to ratings, it’s a good indication he’s just lost the ratings war. It’s as transparent as a kid who can’t dribble a basketball and pouts, “Basketball is dumb!” The folks at CNN may deny they’re concerned about ratings, that they’re above competition and focused solely on great journalism, but that’s hard to believe when they spend $15 million to build Paula Zahn a new set! I think their sudden change of heart about ratings began in 2002, when Fox became the number one cable news network.
Ignoring ratings may also suggest extreme arrogance. People in television should care whether the viewers are pleased with the presentation. To ignore ratings and to simply program a show with what the anchor wants means the anchor has decided what the viewer should watch.
This isn’t to suggest that people in the news business should be so spellbound by ratings as to lose all good judgment and moral commitment. But how we package the news is important, and it doesn’t require us to compromise integrity.
GRABBING AND KEEPING THE VIEWER’S ATTENTION DOESN’T MEAN DUMBING DOWN
Studying the ratings can tell you a lot—for example, when people start going to sleep. My show is at 10 p.m. Eastern time. By that time of night, sleep is starting to look mighty tempting to a lot of people on the East Coast. Others might be about to pick up the phone to call their mothers, or to order one of those pizzas they see advertised during commercial breaks. My job is to keep everybody awake and locked on Fox! No droopy eyes, no phone calls. Thumbs are not allowed to move on those remotes until eleven o’clock!
Now, it doesn’t mean that all I have to do to hold the viewers’ attention is to program tabloid subjects or book hot guests. If only it were that easy. If gaining and keeping viewers tuned in was as easy as just programming tabloid subjects all the time, everyone would be doing it and doing it well. Audiences are too savvy for a formula as simple as that.
Our show and many others have gotten good ratings featuring guests who hardly qualify as tabloid material—guests such as Henry Kissinger and former White House chief of staff David Gergen, not to mention the innumerable military and policy analysts who’ve given their opinions on some very serious, very dry subjects. The point is that you have to engage your guests with the important questions, invite discussion, and make difficult subjects interesting. Involving your viewers is about creating the right mix, staying focused, and keeping the energy high.
How do I make sure I can project energy? It’s simple: I make sure I stay curious. I am no different from viewers: I don’t want to be bored either.
I KEEP LEARNING FROM MY VIEWERS
It can be challenging to guess what will appeal to viewers. It’s an ongoing lesson. And here again, the ratings can be very instructive. One time on Burden of Proof, the afternoon show I used to do on CNN, a staff member wanted to do a show on Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease? You have to be kidding. What could be more depressing? How was I going to keep any of my viewers tuned into a show about elderly loved ones dying a slow death? What could be engaging about that kind of heartbreak? I was outvoted by my colleagues, so against my better judgment, we did the show.
Well, the viewers liked it; the ratings were incredible. Okay, maybe liked is the wrong word—but they watched it.
Our Alzheimer’s show was hardly entertaining; it was a how-to show. We explained how someone should prepare himself and his family legally when the diagnosis is first given. We pursued the course of the disease down its path to the point where the affected become legally incompetent. We defined incompetence—what it is, how it is proven, and what happens if the party objects to the proceeding. Our guests had solid experience with the important issues, including a judge who spoke plainly about the problems of establishing legal incompetence. In short, here was a show without celebrity, spin, or sensationalism-just information, pure and simple, none of which was “pretty” or would win us a popularity contest-but the viewers tuned in and stayed tuned in.
GETTING THE “GET”
Everybody in the news business knows about the “get.” One of the most talked-about things inside the television business is what some people will do to get an interview. The stories are legend—and for that reason I can’t repeat them here because I simply don’t know which ones are true or exaggerated—but take it from me, you hear the gamut, from bribery to blondes.
The “get” is someone at the center of a big story. The “get” is the guest everybody has to have at that moment. It can be a celebrity or someone who by circumstance simply happens to be in the vortex of a major news story. In short, the “get” is to news what prey is to predator.
One journalist I know calls that moment when every reporter is in a frenzy over a story the “get-the-mother” moment. It’s macabre, but whenever there’s a major news story about a child in this country (and these days, sadly, it’s usually a tragic one), you can almost hear the top editors and producers across the United States yelling at their reporters to go out there and get the woman who’s at the heart of it.
We can be critical of the practice of “getting the mother,” but in fact sought-after interviewees are sought after for one good and simple reason:
They know something. They can shed light on the story; they can explain. Viewers want to hear from people close to the center of a story, and who can blame them? Likewise, I don’t want to watch a bunch of droning talking heads who are unrelated to the topic or simply uninformed.
THE FRENZY TURNS FICKLE
Of course, the best “get” is the person who is the subject of the story. In times of war, that might be the U.S. president and the secretaries of defense and state. The president of the opposing country would be in this category too.
But oh, how things can change. If a pilot gets shot down during a war and is rescued, he and his heroic rescuers immediately trump the president and the secretaries. Everyone warms to a human-interest story, and war issues pale next to coverage of fresh-and-blood heroes in life-threatening circumstances. It will quickly become “President who?” The pilot and his rescuers bolt to the top of the bookers’ “get” list. The chase is on. You can practically smell the adrenaline. You should hear the discussions: “Does anyone know anyone who went to high school with any of these rescuers? How about the pilot?” Or “Wait—I was in Girl Scouts with the pilot’s brother’s wife.” Or “A friend of a friend knows his dentist.” It can get pretty silly. But few leads are left unpursued because sometimes—who knows—it may work.
But then the inevitable happens: Once the pilot and his heroic rescuers have made the circuit of all the talk shows, they begin to vanish from the list. They become, unfortunately, yesterday’s news, on the floor of the parakeet’s cage. Remember old what’s-his-name?
Anyone who has ever been courted by reporters and bookers can be surprised at how fickle the “getting” can be. You could be the subject of the most important news story and be debating with yourself whether to do Katie or Diane, when suddenly a bigger news story hits the street. Suddenly your calls to the producers and bookers are not returned. You may have been flattered by the continuous delivery of flowers to your house, but you can be dropped like a hot potato as soon as something else bumps you from the radar screen.
This isn’t to suggest that the media intend to be rude, but journalists operate on a fast track of breaking news. It is not sentimental and it is not especially kind. We move very quickly between news stories-and always at an unpredictable pace. Planning for a future story is a fantasy, because as soon as a new story “happens” we drop everything for the next big thing on the wire.
And, of course, being a “get” can also get you what you want, provided you play your cards right. For instance, during the controversy over Senator Trent Lott’s birthday cheer for Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott was the “get” to get. Viewers wanted to know the story behind Lott’s remarks. What could the senator have been thinking when he made those comments about the country being better off if Senator Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948? Didn’t he realize those words would be perceived as racist?
It was in Mr. Lott’s interest to clear some things up, to restore his reputation, and he had a specific audience he wanted to address. The prize for the “get” went to BET (Black Entertainment Television). Even the Today show and Good Morning America were left in the dust. But the getting, in this instance, was mutually beneficial.
I hate to be so presumptuous as to state why a potential “get” chooses one show over another, but I do have a pretty good idea what goes into the decision. I learned Firsthand when I myself became the “get.” (Remember the media frenzy after my plastic surgery? See Chapter 6 for more on that.) I’ve also been in competition with other shows and been told what the competitor’s pitch was.
Let me give you an insight into how this competition works. I should add that I hope you are never the subject of a major news story, as it is usually bad news (unless you win the lottery).
First the bookers inform the “get” of the channel’s or network’s ratings. “You will reach more people this way” is a very powerful argument to people looking for a missing child or for someone who has an ideological point to make. The networks are at a huge advantage, since network TV is free to anyone who has a television. Cable is in fewer homes, as many people can’t get access to cable or can’t afford it. (CNN is in more homes. But at least as I write this, Fox is seen by more viewers.) So Fox and CNN have to compete with the networks in a different way, because we in cable don’t have the huge number of homes that the networks do. But we have something they do not: time. As a result, we can carpet-bomb the airwaves with interviews. Sound bites and the interview can play 24/7. The networks have very limited airtime devoted to their interviews. We can replay the interviews multiple times and in so doing raise the number of viewers who can see it. This is not to say that ratings are the only method of getting the “get.” The credibility of the host may play a significant role, or the “get” may be particularly fond of an anchor. Sometimes bookers and producers build up a rapport with a potential interviewee, and that person goes on gut instinct or loyalty to a perceived new friend. I frequently have an advantage in legal matters since I am a lawyer and other lawyers often feel comfortable talking to me. It makes sense, since I’m in the club. But sometimes being a lawyer is irrelevant or even a drawback. Some guests have confessed to me that they were afraid to go on with me, thinking my being a lawyer would translate into me hammering them rudely on television. They soon found out: I can be tough, but I try never to be rude.