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Live From the Ferris Wheel

While station staffers might lament having to work as friends and family are enjoying copious corn dogs and rides on the Scrambler at the annual late-summer ritual known as the state fair, many are having it both ways: They're reporting live from the fairgrounds.

Setting up temporary broadcasting facilities may be costly and time-consuming, but station managers say the opportunity to connect with massive numbers of viewers at the midway is just too great to pass up.

“How can we not be someplace where there's more than a million people?” asks WSHM Springfield, Mass., News Director/anchor Doug Lezette, who will do the 6 p.m. news from the Meredith station's gazebo at the 17-day Eastern States Exposition wingding (known as the Big E) next month. “The exposure you get is invaluable.”

Stations all over the country are boosting resources for their fair presence. CBS-owned WCCO Minneapolis has a full broadcast facility at the Minnesota State Fair, which kicked off Aug. 21, and in a nice “green” touch powers it with energy generated from fairgoers operating special bicycles. Elsewhere at the Minnesota fair, Fox O&O KMSP reports live before hundreds of the estimated 1.6 million attendees.

Out at the recently concluded Iowa fair, Hearst-Argyle's KCCI Des Moines aired its 5 p.m. news live each weekday. “Year after year, it's been a huge, huge success,” says KCCI President/General Manager Paul Fredericksen. “What better way to connect with our audience?”

KCCI connected with an even larger audience with a video of a gigantic Burmese python getting stuck in meteorologist Kurtis Gertz's shorts at the fair; to date, the clip (below) has been viewed close to 400,000 times on YouTube.


Managers say such settings are ideal for giving viewers a chance to mingle with on-air talent—often A-list celebrities in the smaller markets—and offering them a chance to see anchors having fun away from the somber news set. “People get to see anchors in a different light—as relaxed, real people,” says KMSP Minneapolis Creative Services VP Scott Brady. “That goes a long way; maybe one meeting makes someone a viewer for life.”

The connection goes beyond meeting star talent. Local TV's WHO Des Moines gave attendees a little shade and a place to watch local heroes like gymnast and Olympic gold medal winner Shawn Johnson on the big screen. KMSP set up a DTV awareness booth at the Minnesota fair, with station engineers helping viewers get up to speed on the digital transition. Fox-owned KDFW Dallas-Fort Worth, meanwhile, will trot out its second annual “Fox 4 Treasure Hunt” Oct. 13 at the State Fair of Texas; children will walk the botanical gardens and pick up bits of information while getting their cards stamped at different checkpoints. KDFW will report live all that day.

“We're always looking for something to do beyond just [letting people meet] our anchors,” says KDFW Creative Services VP John Kukla. “Sure, we want people to watch [KDFW], but we really want them to come away from our exhibit and say, 'Boy, I had a good time.'”

And with seemingly an entire state turning out for its local carnival, the setting is also a hot source for news tips and story ideas—whether it's about the night's entertainment, the parking situation or the big football game held in conjunction with the fair. KMSP's Brady says it provides a great forum for seeing what's truly going on in the community. “It gives people a chance to reach the media, and it's a great collection tool [for stories],” he says. “Sometimes, we'll put people right on the air.”

To be sure, not every station manager feels the need to hit the fair. Some say they reach a more desirable demographic at more focused events like wine expos and fancy-foods shows, and other say it's difficult to deliver hard news with Ferris wheels and mountains of cotton candy in the background. Most agree that the return on investment is tricky to measure, especially in markets that don't get overnight ratings.

Still, many station executives believe their presence at the state fair is vital for building good will—and ratings. “These are the great opportunities to gain audience,” says WHO Regional VP/General Manager Dale Woods. “Those meet-and-greets go a long way.”