Dropping An Anchor
Audience polls can sink a broadcaster’s career
By Tom Sowa
Recently fired TV weatherman Al Peterson considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“If I was married with kids and was in debt, I’d be terrified of this industry,” says the 27-year-old Peterson. Earlier this month, KHQ let Peterson go, partly because of how viewers evaluated his work, he says.
The dismissal gave him a moment of self-doubt. Then his sense of self-worth and career perspectives returned to normal.
“It’s amazing how many times she was fired in her career. So it’s reassuring to know it happens even to the big guns, including Dan Rather.”
What annoys Peterson is the weight viewers’ responses carry at KHQ. Those responses, he says, may have little to do with how well he did his job.
Like every TV broadcaster in town, Peterson has learned to respect the importance of audience research in determining who’s hot and who’s not in the minds of television viewers.
Audience research – in essence a thumbs-up or thumbs-down report card turned in by the viewers – has become, in Peterson’s words, “the terror of every newsroom.”
“It’s the kind of thing where a little blip can get you fired pretty quickly,” he says.
TV newscast research covers a variety of topics, but the main component, the one that terrorizes station talent, is personality research. In its simplest form, personality research answers the questions: Does this particular newscaster come across as sincere and likable? Or does he or she do poorly in viewers’ eyes?
All three Spokane network affiliates conduct their research along the same lines: The station hires an outside firm, who works with local managers to define a set of questions. Random phone calls to area TV viewers generate the answers that make up the research.
Station managers regard research as a tool, and an increasingly important one in this market, where a few ratings points mean hundreds of thousands of dollars lost or gained.
“Research helps you make decisions,” says Dean Mell, KHQ’s news director. “It’s what you use to make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.”
Mell, who had a key role in letting Peterson go, declines to say what role research played in that decision.
Terror or tool, research is respected by most on-air anchors and news reporters.
Even Peterson agrees it has a purpose. “It can be useful or useless, depending on what’s being done with it and how honed the analytical reason is of the person looking at it,” he says.
But it also misses and misfires, Peterson adds.
“It misses intangibles, like the ability I felt I had to fit into the program. I liked the others (on KHQ’s newscast). I interacted well. That team effect was not measured.”
But viewers scored him low on “presentation,” says Peterson. “I have a dry sense of humor. I got the impression that management had plans that I become more bubbly, like Shelly Monahan.
“I guess I mind (being let go) because I scored well in sense of humor and personality. The (research) didn’t say clear out, that it was time for me to go.”
“When I first got to Spokane, I was seen as a little too serious and cold.” Working with KREM’s consultants, Carr says she learned to lighten up. That audience feedback helped her earn the status of the most-recognized news anchor in the community, she adds.
“Research is a personality contest, to some extent,” says Carr.
“But popularity is not looks or a pretty face. It’s ultimately the ability to communicate. There are some people who just have that ability to mold themselves to fit the community they work in.”
For every job dismissal based on research, one could probably point to promotions that result from strong audience research results.
KHQ recently promoted Debra Wilde to 11 p.m. news anchor, not long after a previous promotion from weather woman to feature reporter.
Wilde’s ascent is linked directly to high scores in audience evaluations.
Mell says Wilde is “clearly the strongest TV personality in town right now,” according to KHQ research.
Audience response involves more than a superficial liking for Wilde’s face or voice, adds Mell.
“It’s due to her own progress and to the skills and qualities she brings to her job. Her abilities, a sense of humor, good taste and a sense of adventure, come across on the tube.”
A station that doesn’t conduct regular research ultimately pays for it in lower ratings and office turmoil, says Mell.
“If people don’t watch our newscast, I’ve got to know what it is they don’t like. And we’ll have to try and change.”
Research finds out what works and what doesn’t. “If the audience perceives you differently than how you want to be seen, then you adapt and change the product,” Mell says.
The drawback of research, according to critics, is its tendency to value subjective qualities like “warmth” and “personality” at the expense of news judgment and overall competence.
Glenn Johnson, an instructor in the communications department at Washington State University, says research ultimately erodes the quality of TV news, pushing it in the direction of audience amusement and entertainment.
“Most viewers don’t realize how many people are involved in preparing TV news. But personality research ties an entire station’s evaluation to the personalities of three or four people. It’s often the case, too, that the people with the stronger personality ratings turn out to be poor journalists” says Johnson, who worked as a producer for a Los Angeles TV station before moving to Pullman.
“Personally,” Mell adds, “I worry about that trend (toward personality measurement). But that’s the real world. I can’t force (TV viewers) to change their standards.”
Getting “like” or “dislike” votes isn’t the sole target of TV research, Mell and the other station directors say. In addition to getting a reaction to the faces who do the newscast, research aims at uncovering a TV station’s strong and weak points, determining whether viewers notice promotional campaigns and even discovering whether a news set makes viewers comfortable or not.
While research occurs most frequently in phone surveys, it can include random on-the-street interviews or more specialized surveys, either in a viewer’s home or in the station studio.
The questions usually range from simple responses – “Do you know the name Tod Pickett” for example – to more detailed queries on how a viewer decides which station to watch.
“Our job, essentially, is to come up with every conceivable question a station may need to know,” explains David Smith, manager of TV consulting for Frank N. Magid Associates, an Iowa-based firm that conducts research for KREM-TV.
News directors hope viewers recognize the name of their anchors and reporters, and connect them with the right station.
Equally important is finding out how viewers feel about the broadcast anchor or reporter.
“How do you like so-and-so? Would you describe him/her as a warm, sincere communicator?” are the most basic forms of that question. Beyond that, good surveys try to pinpoint specific factors to explain likes and dislikes.
In a city the size of Spokane, getting useful statistics often means tests involving between 200 and 500 questionnaires, according to Magid’s Smith.
Good research will cost a client from $5,000 to $50,000 per project, depending on the complexity of the survey.
As bad as a negative audience response to a broadcaster is no response at all, Crittenden says.
“If the research shows one of your people has no image at all, something is definitely wrong,” agrees KHQ’s Mell.
Phil Wenstrand, KREM’s news director, emphasizes that each local station uses research according to its own purposes.
“It’s only a tool,” says Wenstrand. “You’re a fool if you pay for research and don’t use it. But you’re also a fool if you let it dictate decisions for you.”
Even favorable audience reactions can’t guarantee an anchor’s job, as former KREM sportscaster Tod Pickett learned earlier this year.
Pickett had worked at KREM for several years and had become the most-recognized, best-liked sportscaster in this area, says KXLY’s Crittenden.
“Any time the results of research were brought up to me, I was right in there, in terms of name recognition and being liked,” says Pickett. That didn’t matter when KREM management decided to replace Pickett in April.
Wenstrand declines to discuss Pickett’s firing. “I’ve never made any hiring or firing decisions solely based on research,” he says.
While personality research raises questions, Wenstrand points out that the television industry has no choice but to stay tuned to viewer likes and dislikes.
“We’re in the business that’s probably the most responsive to public demands and trends. When people make their feelings known, TV reacts quickly. We have to. When you’re not doing what you should be doing, you’re only giving your competition a leg up on you.”
Thursday, August 27, 1987