In the dead of night, the meters tell Nielsen's computers what people in those households have been watching for the past 24 hours. By 9 a.m., the information is in the hands of Richmond's TV stations. News managers receive instant feedback on how they and their competition fared the night before.
Why does that mean that the lead story on the 6 o'clock news is almost over at exactly 6 o'clock?
Nielsen Media Research reports its meter results in quarter-hour increments. And programmers in metered markets have quickly learned to game the system.
Real people don't watch television in quarter-hour increments. With remotes in hand, they're constantly surfing the jungle of broadcast and cable channels for something that draws their attention.
What are the rules of this new game, and how is it played?
1) Think in 15-minute blocks.
"In order to have a good half hour of news you have to have two good quarter hours," says Bill Foy, news director at WRIC-TV 8.
But news programmers don't really have to get more viewers for the whole 15 minutes to win the quarter hour. They just have to win approximately the first eight minutes the majority of the quarter hour.
"You won't get credit if they only watch the first six minutes and then go channel surfing," says Rick Howard, news director at Channel 6.
That's why the 6 o'clock news starts early, sometimes as early as 5:58 p.m., but never much later than 5:59:30 p.m. The people behind the newscasts want you hooked by that very first minute. That's why you'll never see a commercial block at 6:00:00 or 6:15:00. The station wants to make sure that those people with meters on the back of their sets are locked into the newscast for the next round of eight minutes before the quarter hour begins.
2) Keep the audience you've got.
"We've tried a lot of things to take advantage of the game," says Channel 8's Foy. "For us at 6 p.m., the key is to capitalize on the sizeable audience that watches 'Oprah' on our station during her last quarter hour. We go from 'Oprah' right into news content, which means our evening newscast starts before 6 o'clock."
3) Don't fire all your big guns at once.
The arcane way in which Nielsen reports the winners and also-rans by quarter hour also affects story placement in local newscasts.
"If I have a really good story, I'll lead with it to suck you into the newscast," Howard says. But, he says and this is a big but to those who expect to see the day's important stories one after another "If I have a good second lead story, I might place it lower in the newscast." Why? Because Howard wants to keep viewers watching past that magic 6:08 mark.
Audience research in Richmond indicates that viewers want lots of weather information. So whenever the weather is at all interesting, you'll see a short weather summary near the top of the newscast, with a reminder to stay tuned for the complete forecast. But unless there's a weather emergency, the weatherman won't be giving up the whole forecast too early. If he did, you'd feel satisfied and comfortable with tuning out.
By the same token, the sports report is usually buried deep in the newscast, after 6:23, because it's not a big audience draw unless there's a crucial local angle, such as NASCAR or high-school football.
Managers at the three Richmond TV stations say they generally like having overnight meter results.
"I think they force you to do a better job," says Frank Jones, assistant news director at WWBT-TV 12. "It's like when you're in school. A grade every day makes you a better student."
"I don't want to say we live and die by the events of any single metered day," Foy says, "but we do pay attention."
Meters do have their limitations. Since they measure nothing more than whether a set is turned on and what channel it's tuned into, they provide no demographic information. For all Foy and Howard and Jones know, it could be that a gray-haired lady and her six cats are watching. Or it could be that the entire family is gathered around the set.
So the old-fashioned quarterly "sweeps" when Nielsen tracks TV use by way of written viewer diaries are still important, Jones maintains, because stations want to know exactly who is watching as much as they want to know how many TV sets are turned on.
"Meters are the kiss of death," Howard says, "and at the same time they can be very helpful. When you get a great overnight number perhaps even score off the chart then maybe you think you have it figured out. Or the reverse could happen, and you decide to blow up your plan and start all over.
"But it's been my experience that spikes are not indicative of what you're doing. You need to have a plan, trust your judgment, and stay the course." S
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