Local TV Eye-Opener: Politics Aren't Poison: Stations Discover That Stories about Real People Draw Audiences. (First Person)

Article excerpt

KTVU viewers in Oakland-San Francisco saw how class size at local schools might increase if the state couldn't resolve its budget crisis.

WNBC viewers in New York followed a young woman's search for an affordable apartment and then heard what the mayoral candidates would do about housing issues.

On WYFF in Greenville, South Carolina, more viewers watched a special about political advertising than "Jeopardy."

An October 22 debate on WESH-Orlando between Gov. Jeb Bush and challenger Bill McBride was the No. 1 television program at 7 p.m.

All of these stations have two things in common usually thought to be mutually exclusive in local television: strong ratings and a commitment to covering politics.

Amid all the analysis of the recent election, the role of local television isn't adequately understood. There have been the predictable condemnations about how poorly local TV news performed--criticism that has more validity than we would like. But there was also evidence of the opposite phenomenon--stations that covered politics and prospered. They may be onto something that will benefit not only viewers but the industry, too.

The key is not that they covered politics. It is how they covered it.

Much of the thinking about political coverage on local television is based on recommendations by TV consultants, who help steer newsrooms toward stories and story approaches they believe audiences want. They generally base these recommendations on audience surveys, and herein lies the problem.

We obtained a copy of a standard survey from one of the nation's major consulting firms, and, consulting with other consultants, confirmed the questionnaire was typical. There were plenty of questions about whether audiences wanted specific types of consumer news--from where to shop to how to avoid getting ripped off--and plenty of questions to gauge interest in home and health topics--from parenting tips to pet care.

But the question about politics was: "How interested are you in news reports about issues and activities in government and politics?"

Polling professionals told us that generally the less specific the question, the less useful the answer. In this case, the question was so general it was meaningless. The question probed interest in "issues and activities in government," not real-life problems that government confronts. They might as well have asked, "Are you one of those political junkies who watches C-SPAN instead of 'Survivor'?"

But what if the politics questions were as specific as those about pet care? We decided to conduct an experiment and teamed with the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press to compare the consultants' question about politics with questions that framed the topic differently. The results were dramatic and revealing.

When it came to the consultants' mainstay ("How interested are you in news reports on issues and activities in state government and politics?"), only 29 percent of those surveyed said they'd be very interested in that.

But when people were asked if they'd be interested in "news reports about what government can do to reduce health care costs," the percentage of "very interested" jumped to 64 percent. And when participants were asked if they'd be interested in reports on what government can do to ensure that public places are safe from terrorism, the "very interested" percentage hit 67 percent. Pollsters measured similar interest levels for stories about improving local schools. All of these topics have everything to do with politics and government.

It might be tempting to suggest that people just say they're interested in schools, health care and security because they think it's the socially acceptable response. Yet people clearly felt no such compunction when responding to the generalized survey Rather, the Pew data indicate that if you pose story options differently, if you focus on what matters in people's lives, there's every indication people would watch. …