Friday, February 19, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 97

Barowski on Complaining

Staff Editorial

Letters to the Editor

Editorial Cartoon

About the Cougar

Haul out the brooms, it's sweeps time

Margaret Mitchell

It's mid-February, and the war of ratings between television networks has kicked into high gear. Having formerly worked at a radio station, I understand the importance of ratings. In theory, a station's success during sweeps reflects that station's popularity among viewers. This determines how much a station can get away with charging for advertisements.

The major television network ratings are gathered by the A.C. Nielsen Corporation. They have 5,000 regular panelists whose television sets are equipped with modems for daily transmission to the Nielsen computer system. These ratings are supplemented by diaries sent to people who are selected at random.

The concept is simple: Chosen panelists receive a diary in the mail, fill it out for a week (indicating what they watched) and then mail it back. The theory is that viewers generally watch the same shows -- what they enjoy watching. A greater audience response to a program means higher ratings. A modest response can be a show's death. Again, that's the theory.

As part of the process, our favorite, or not so favorite, shows pull out all the stops to grab ratings during sweeps. They have celebrity guest appearances, couples in romances that have been dragging on for months, cliff-hanger episodes (explosions, near death experiences, etc.), epic mini-series and special events. It's the best of Must See TV. Theoretically.

A new trend for this year, however, is the involvement of local TV news in the competition. Local TV news has gotten a bad rap for years. It's the decade-old battle of whether news is news or entertainment. Let's face it, though. Local TV news is typically just bad.

How many times can you sit and watch local broadcast personalities "reporting" from in front of an overturned 18-wheeler or from city hall with the same "breaking" news that broke last night?

How many interviews can you stomach of outraged citizens who are asked "How do you feel about whatever it is you are outraged about?" Finally, will you be interrupted once more during a favorite show (especially a soap opera) by the news of yet another burning apartment complex?

While this may be news, they should break in, tell us which apartment complex is ablaze and then go away. But they don't go away. They report on, telling us the same three pieces of information over and over as if it will somehow make a difference in our lives.

Finally, there are not enough newsworthy events to fill up the allocated time-slots anymore. Local TV news has apparently realized this and is trying very hard to disguise the fact. They now use cool graphics, catchy theme music, "big stories," and local news anchors who chat with the weatherman in front of very impressive-looking equipment instead of behind a desk.

But we are not impressed, and they know it. During February sweeps, they have come to the same conclusion as viewers did long ago: Local TV news is boring. Since they can't impress us, they might as well buy us.

You may have noticed the big money giveaways on our local channels. When are these big giveaways scheduled? Why, right in the middle of their newscasts. What an amazing coincidence!

I can't help but be depressed by these trends. Oh, sure, a few people will win some money, and the station may get a few extra bucks and bragging rights for the No. 1 local news program. Under this scheme, however, the No. 1 slot is not about having better news. Instead, it is about having a better contest. For the "Titanic" wreck that is the local television news, splurging on expensive deck chairs will not save the ship.

Mitchell, a junior political science major,
watches way too much TV for her own good.
She can be reached at

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