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IT SOUNDS like one of those too-good-to-be-true job listings: get paid to watch television. But that’s what’s going on for some lucky viewers in New York, San Diego and Oklahoma City, among other markets, who’ve won the various watch-and-win contests popping up during May sweeps.

While radio has long awarded caller No. 10 with fabulous prizes, television is increasingly tapping the concept, too. WPIX New York is one of four Tribune stations offering “CA$H GRAB” contests, where the 11th caller each night gets $111, and one each week wins a trip inside a vault for a chance to grab serious cash.

If some say enterprise reporting, not cash giveaways, should drive news ratings, WPIX News Director Bill Carey calls CA$H GRAB a harmless venture. “We’re featuring some special reports in May, so we thought this was a way to attract some sampling for a station that needs to draw attention to itself,” he says.

Whether it’s because stations have bigger marketing budgets post-recession or because the fight for ratings points in the fractionalized media world is so frenzied, watch-and-win campaigns appear to be on the rise. Besides Tribune’s foursome (WPIX, KSWB San Diego, KTXL Sacramento and WPMT Harrisburg), Scranton’s WNEP offers two May sweeps contests: a grocery giveaway during its 6 p.m. newscast, and a new-car giveaway just before its 10 p.m. news on its .2 channel.

WRSP Springfield, Ill., gives grocery gift cards to caller No. 9 during its 9 p.m. news, while KFOR Oklahoma City has teamed with 7-Eleven to give away a $400 gas card each night of sweeps. KFOR President/General Manager Jim Boyer says such contests can be vital to the NBC affiliate’s late news lead-in. “Some nights we just get creamed by CBS [primetime],” he says. “It might help us, if not win, at least stay in the game.”

As so many of Tribune’s brass have radio backgrounds, it’s no surprise that the group would rip out a page from radio’s playbook. Carey says WPIX’s 10 p.m. news ratings are up 20%, from a 1.5 to a 1.8 household rating, in the first week of May sweeps, compared to the same week a year ago. (WPIX was New York’s No. 5 revenue earner in 2009, according to BIA/Kelsey.) As do Tribune’s other CA$H GRAB-ing stations, WPIX turns the winners— the first two grabbed $4,990 and $6,799—into news stories to drum up interest in their vault dives.

“People root for them more when they feel like they know them better,” Carey points out.

The WPIX executive believes such promotions deserve their place every now and then next to breaking news and weather. “The correct approach for us is not to bank on any one thing—we need to work to bring all these things together,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with allowing a little fun [in the news].”

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