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The BizJeffrey Ulrich

If you work in a television station, you know The Look. I'm describing the often worried, frequently changing expressions you see on the various station personnel whenever the latest ratings information arrives from Nielsen Media Research.

Anchors with guaranteed contracts? No stress. Promotion Managers? Forget it. Until they deliver a 100 share in every time period, their efforts are never good enough. Fear, relief, and disappointment are all part of the roller coaster ride of emotions that accompany the delivery of the ratings data after each sweeps period.

The Nielsen ratings serve as a report card for everyone involved in TV content creation. Whether you're the news director, the 6 p.m. anchor, or the Chyron operator, these numbers affect how your job performance is evaluated.

In my 17 years in broadcasting, I think I've heard it all. "We dropped one share point in the adults 65-plus demo- change the graphics! Fix the lighting! Change the music! Give that anchor a new hairstyle!" Or, "We need more live shots from vacant buildings where crimes occurred two years ago! Increase the story count! Cut sports! Give me more breaking news!"

Don't get me wrong- of course I'm not opposed to the continual refinement and improvement of the news product. But think about this- what is more important to your station's bottom line: high ratings, or having the ability to charge whatever you want to have happy, satisfied news advertisers? Of course, you want both. But consider this real-life example:

May 2003 Rochester, NY DMA
11 p.m. Monday through Friday
One Week, Total Homes with Nielsen Diaries201
Households Using Television (HUT)32
Total Homes (with Diaries) Watching TV64 (201 x 32%)
Combined HH Share for the Three News Stations at 11 p.m.58 Total Share
Total Actual Homes (with Diaries) Watching the Three News Programs37 (64 x .58)
Source: Nielsen Media Research, Rochester, NY, May 2003.

That's right- on the average night at 11 p.m. during any given week of the May sweeps the people living in 64 homes determined the potential ratings as the people in 37 of those homes established the share for Rochester's news stations.

Great. Our fates, our fortunes, and our commercial ad rates are largely influenced by a group of people who could all fit into a small cafe.

I'm not looking for a debate on population sampling, or survey methodology. That's not the point. If you're secure with the above scenario, then read no further.

It just seems to me that some TV stations put a lot of effort into tinkering with their product and trying to lure viewers and not enough energy into what actually generates revenue. What pays the bills is their news advertiser's actual commercial message, the success of their campaign, and the renewal of their investment with the station.

But let's look at the current process. A TV station ramps up for the next sweeps period. Hard-hitting "Special Reports" are planned. Graphics are fine-tuned. External media buys complement the on-air promotion, all carefully crafted to hook the viewers. When all goes according to plan, the ratings rise, advertising rates increase accordingly, and everyone is all smiles when the next Nielsen book comes in.

In reality, however, it doesn't always work that way. As TV stations focus on growing their local revenue, their salespeople are spending more time face-to-face with actual business owners, rather than with agency media buyers. These advertisers are demanding results rather than ratings. It's not enough anymore to say, "My news is number one." Instead, these clients are counting incoming phone calls, measuring store traffic, and evaluating their investment with your station by looking directly at their bottom line.

If television advertising success was directly proportional to the quantity of persons reached, this business would be easy. But look at your own market. Is the station with the highest revenues the same as the station with the highest weekly viewership? As you plan your station's budgets and resource allocations for 2004, now is a good time to examine what you can be doing to ensure that new business becomes repeat business- no matter how many people are watching.

Jeffrey Ulrich is a member of the sales team at WHEC, Rochester, NY. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of HBI, Inc. He can be reached through his website,, or at