Has WQAD’s Sweeps Ploy Made a Better Newscast? Print
News/Features - Media
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 17 February 2011 09:53

In October, I took a snapshot of local television news by watching and analyzing four nights of 10 p.m. newscasts by the four primary commercial Quad Cities stations. I was, admittedly, harsh on WQAD, saying that the ABC affiliate was “stunningly weak in local news.”

So when WQAD announced that in February, its Monday late-night newscasts would feature “35 minutes of news, weather, and local-sports content with no interruptions,” I was intrigued.

At the outset, it’s important to note that this is clearly a stunt for the February sweeps. If WQAD can attract more viewers – on Mondays specifically, but with the hope that they’ll stick around the other six days of the week – it can charge more for advertising, which over the long haul would more than make up for the lost revenue on four Mondays.

But as sweeps stunts go, this is a ballsy and encouraging gambit. Rather than sensational coverage or giveaways, WQAD seemed to be promising a better newscast.

In October, there was much room for improvement. For the four surveyed days, WQAD trailed both NBC affiliate KWQC and CBS affiliate WHBF in total newscast time, time devoted to local/state news, the number of local/state stories, and on-camera interviews for local/state stories. It ruled in soft-news content, though.

So I watched WQAD’s 10 p.m. newscast on February 14 and did the same measurements I did in October.

Keep in mind: If my October project was a snapshot, this is a detail of a snapshot; it was a single night’s newscast, and I didn’t do comparisons with the same night’s newscast on other stations.

But it’s still instructive. The February 14 newscast proportionally had a little more local/state news (34.7 percent compared to WQAD’s October percentage of 32.8), a lot more soft news (28.7 percent compared to October’s 16.9 percent), a little less sports (18.9 percent compared to October’s 19.4 percent), and a lot less weather (15.3 percent compared to October’s 21.1 percent) and national/international news (2.4 percent compared to October’s 9.9 percent). This breakdown of Monday’s newscast would still place WQAD behind KWQC and WHBF in the portion of its newscast devoted to local/state news.

Because of the absence of commercials, however, that’s not a fair comparison. I measured the length of WQAD’s Monday newscast – excluding teasers and unrelated banter – as 29 minutes, 13 seconds, which is more than six minutes longer than any of its competitors’ average newscasts in October. (KWQC’s newscasts averaged 23 minutes, 6 seconds.) So WQAD had a lot more time to work with.

The problem with WQAD’s newscasts in October was that local- and state-news coverage was sacrificed for weather and (especially) soft news. Even though the proportion of local and state news wasn’t much greater on February 14 than in October, this week’s Monday newscast didn’t feel like the news got pushed aside by other content.

With the luxury of extra time, WQAD on Monday had significantly more local/state news stories than any of its competitors did in their average October newscasts, or in any of their surveyed newscasts. WQAD had 16 local/state news stories on February 14, compared to WHBF’s leading average of nearly 14 and its top newscast of 15. In October, WQAD averaged eight local/state news stories per night.

In time terms, WQAD’s Monday local/state-news component was 10 minutes, 9 seconds – 47 seconds more than KWQC’s October average and 82 seconds more than WHFB’s October average.

But WQAD still trailed its competitors in terms of on-camera sources for local and state news. It only featured eight sources, compared to KWQC and WHBF averages between 10 and 11 per newscast in October. (WQAD averaged just over six in October.) This suggests that WQAD still isn’t doing as much news reporting as its competitors, and it highlights the biggest shortcoming of its news operation – one that can’t be fixed simply by expanding the newscast.

Monday’s newscast was symptomatic of the larger problem, as the best stories were soft news: a throwaway bit about the Ozzy Osbourne concert as a Valentine’s Day date (or, in one case, the reason one couple had separate plans for the evening), and a lovely, patient, nearly four-minute feature about a long-term correspondence that eventually blossomed into a marriage. Until the station puts more focus on reporting the news – and less on soft feature stories – it will lag behind KWQC and WHBF as a news source.

Still, on February 14, WQAD showed that it’s capable of a robust, balanced newscast that can in the crudest measures rival KWQC’s and WHBF’s.

But WQAD likely can’t afford commercial-free 10 p.m. newscasts every day – or even one day a week. So while I applaud the station for upping the ante for sweeps month, I fear that this experiment won’t ultimately lead to a stronger news operation.