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Contests Replaced With Local Promos

Contests held during sweeps may be a thing of the past. In two markets where the practice has endured, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C., “watch-and-win” challenges are fading.

The trouble with contests, industry execs say, is they can artificially inflate Nielsen ratings during sweeps, when local-spot pricing is set, and that angers advertisers. In 1995, when Nielsen installed overnight meter ratings in Pittsburgh, the differences became apparent: Ratings for newscasts with contests soared as much as 30%.

“Contests affect a station's ratings temporarily,” says Richard Wolk, president of Pittsburgh-based ad agency RJW Media. Pittsburgh stations WTAE, owned by Hearst, and WPXI, a Cox station, spent a decade hawking cash and prizes in early news during sweeps. But market leader KDKA, a CBS O&O, avoided the tactic under former GM Gary Cozen. It lobbied hard against the practice, even airing spots that showed how slim viewers' chances were of winning.

Recently, the giveaways have gone away. Last November, WPXI opted against one, although WTAE took the plunge and grabbed higher ratings. So far this month, neither station has held a contest. Says WTAE Director of Sales Bob Bee, “If others come on with one, I probably will, too.”

Most contests have faded in Charlotte, too. Fox affiliate WCCB will still run sweepstakes, but not this month. Instead, VP/GM John Hutchinson is pitching his new 10 p.m. anchor team. “A contest might be a diversion right now,” he says. Plus, they eat up promo time.

Among WCCB's February plans is hyping anchor Steve Hardig's regular “Road Warrior” segment, late-news follow-ups to morning traffic snarls. With Fox carrying the Daytona 500, WCCB smelled opportunity. The station crafted a spot in which Hardig gives directions to a NASCAR driver. It premiered during the Feb. 20 race and will run through sweeps.

The market's other stations—WBTV, WSOC and WCNC—are also contest-free. Jefferson Pilot's WBTV VP/GM Mary MacMillan nixed them seven years ago. “It becomes about upping the ante,” she says. Instead, the station touts its in-depth stories, such as a piece on Charlotte's most powerful pastors.

Increasingly, Charlotte stations are using another attention-grabber in sweeps: radio advertising. All four major stations are using radio heavily to pepper the market. “We need to be timely and topical,” says WSOC VP/GM Lee Armstrong.

WCNC is advertising its February sweeps on radio for the first time, promoting its “6 News Investigator” team. Among WCNC's sweeps investigations: an exposé on high school sports boosters and automatic debiting from checking accounts.

Local Elections Poorly Covered

Local news received a mixed review on coverage of last fall's political season. In the four weeks leading up to the November 2004 elections, 64% of all stations carried at least one election report, but most focused on the presidential race rather than local races, per a new study by the Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School and the NewsLab at the University of Wisconsin.

The study, which has come under fire for not including morning news, noted that 92% of stations aired no stories on local races. Stations were eight times more likely to cover accidents and 12 times more likely to report sports and weather.

Researchers pored over about 4,000 evening local newscasts on 44 affiliates in 11 markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle and Miami. They did applaud some stations, including KCCI Des Moines, Iowa, and KXAS and WFAA in Dallas.