Sweeps Unchained

Rad Berky got armed and dangerous. Carmel Cafiero got Joe Gersten. Ike Seamans got a heart attack. And we watched it all.

As a story about heart disease fades from the screen, WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) news anchor Jennifer Valoppi gazes at the camera in front of her, glances at her notes, then looks back at the camera. "And coming up in just a little bit -- well, actually right now -- we're going to take a look at a very personal story," she stumbles. "You think it'll never happen to you, a heart attack. Well, it did happen to someone very special in our NBC-6 family."

"And what you're about to see is a most unusual story," chimes in co-anchor Tony Segreto. "Our colleague and great friend, senior correspondent Ike Seamans, is here, and we're happy he is! He documented on tape his heart attack as it was happening." Segreto turns to a groggy-looking Seamans, seated to his right. "And I have to ask you, why did you feel compelled to do this for us now?"

Why? That's easy: Sweeps! Seamans's report aired in November, one of the quarterly ratings periods during which television stations nationwide determine how many people are watching their local news broadcasts -- and how much money they can charge for advertising. News programs generate a large portion of a station's profits, so competition for viewers can be intense. During sweeps, news directors display the fruits of yearlong investigations, interviews with celebrities, and absolutely anything else they can think of to hook potential viewers. Like breasts. And babies. And senior correspondents succumbing to chest pains while touring Cleveland sports bars.

Seamans's story, "Surviving a Heart Attack," documents the three days he spent in an Ohio intensive care unit after he suffered major heart artery spasms during Channel 6's coverage of the World Series. Even with his ticker under direct assault, Seamans gamely propped himself in front of a camera and ordered its operator to keep filming. Footage of the resulting story shows the former NBC News Moscow bureau chief supine on a hospital bed with a blue plastic tube snaking into his nostrils, jogging shirtless on a treadmill with electrodes glued to his nipples, and consulting with his cardiologist, who calls Seamans's decision to work through the heart attack "extremely" stupid.

Amazingly, this was not Seamans's first sweeps-broadcast brush with death. Only a few months ago, for the July ratings period, he went on camera to share his personal battle with skin cancer. What's the senior correspondent preparing for the February sweeps, a liver transplant? "Ike's going to be getting older," worries Florida International University broadcast journalism professor Charles Tuggle, a friend of Seamans. "He's going to be able to do a lot of stories like this."

Tuggle explains that personal stories about skin cancer or heart disease or pregnancy (see sidebar, page 22) are part of a trend "sweeping" the broadcast news industry. "Stations have taken on the mantle of your friends down the street," says the professor. "Every time a female anchor has a baby, they're going to make a big deal out of it. I'm sort of ambivalent about it, but what I find disturbing is that this happens only in sweeps."

The most recent sweeps period ran from October 30 through Thanksgiving. Even as the cranberries and stuffing were being served, station managers were scrambling to tabulate the ratings winners. Officially, WPLG (Channel 10) narrowly edged out Spanish-language WLTV (Channel 23) to win in the crucial eleven o'clock nightly news slot. (At least during the week. When weekends are factored in, WLTV came out on top.) WTVJ finished in a virtual tie for second, while WSVN (Channel 7) took third. Fourth place fell, perhaps appropriately, to WFOR (Channel 4). Spanish-language WSCV (Channel 51) finished far out of the running.

Not to take anything away from Channel 10, but we here at New Times believe that the ratings method of determining sweeps "winners" and "losers" is ill-conceived. By focusing exclusively on audience size, the rankings slight the cholesterol-level-be-damned achievements of the reporters, the ones who stalked perverts and skunk apes and revealed the secrets of instructional sex videos, to name just a few accomplishments among the 100-plus stories that aired last month.

Unfortunately, doing something about that sad state of affairs required us to actually watch TV newscasts.

A lot of TV newscasts.
Do not try this at home. We sure didn't. Instead, we enlisted the very helpful staff of the Miami-Dade Public Library's Louis Wolfson II Media History Center. Director Steven Davidson provided us a steel folding chair, a VCR, a television set, and a giant box filled with videotapes containing a month's worth of eleven o'clock newscasts on channels 4, 6, and 10, plus the ten o'clock broadcasts from Channel 7. (Owing to eyestrain and time constraints, we did not review the offerings of Channel 23 or Channel 51.)

After assigning a base score of 50 to each story, we added or subtracted points according to a set of objective criteria. Adhering to the unique nature of sweeps reports, for instance, we awarded points for alliteration, for the use of hidden cameras, and for the word "sex." Points were also given for the inclusion of babies, or Howard Finkelstein as a legal expert. Points were subtracted if a similar story ran on another station. (In the case of Channel 10 stories, points were taken off for anything live, local, or late-breaking.)

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