Twas the month before Christmas and at Local 6,
the Sweeps Santa came early and brought a quick fix
For over two years their news was a joke,
but add flash and some trash, and push the baroque
Then gain a few households and demos from heaven,
as ratings go up at five, six and eleven
November was a slutty, shameful month for the "Problem Solvers" at WKMG-TV Channel 6. First, they tainted a legitimate scoop on the LYNX junketeers by overemphasizing the now-infamous hidden-camera footage. Then came the Lindbergh baby investigation, which deserves a permanent display in the Hall of Schlock. Finally, viewers were warned that two restaurants in Melbourne and Palm Bay had purchased fish from unlicensed vendors. "It's not a big deal," said a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman. "Until somebody gets really sick or until bioterrorism is spread this way." Whatever.
Channel 6 is an unctuous bunch of hucksters, shouting teasers into spongy microphones until the last second of every broadcast. In the midst of the LYNX fiasco, WKMG's studios pulsed with gotcha-ism. They knew they were onto something big, and they scurried around to the sound of whips cracking in the distance. Now each episode is a calamity grab bag, like Reader's Digest set to video. The late-night news features totally true stories of nature's fury, with dollops of criminal mayhem. It always ends with the Pledge of Allegiance, and promos with children singing about "Good Neighbor 6."
This tripe earned them the top spot in the Nielsen 11-o'clock ratings, a first since 1984. It also didn't hurt that they dropped six low-rated newscasts from the logbooks, playing the Nielsen bylaws like a fiddle. In local news, you see, it pays to be naughty.
But WKMG had better enjoy it while they can. The new year brings challenges more suited to their competitors' abilities. Pretty soon, viewers will snap out of their sweeps-induced trance and return to the real news.
WFTV Channel 9 has been spiraling downward lately, leaving dust flurries in its wake. The former giant loses a few more bored viewers with every broadcast. Some of these Eyewitness News defectors have been slumming it over at 6, but both stations are about to be sacked hard by the classiest game in town: Channel 2.
WESH is crazy-good. They have the smartest news team in Orlando, and the most likable on-air duo this city's seen since Natalie Allen and Tony Williams left WFTV in 1992. Wendy Chioji and Jim Payne lead the evening newscasts without all the head-wagging dramatics. They deliver a thorough, even analytical, program, and they keep it interesting.
Chioji has worked at WESH for 14 years and remembers when they once cried wolf for ratings, too.
"I was here back in the days when we did 'truck stop tramps,'" she confesses. "That was a long time ago under different management." She says that this kind of hype-driven content "is exhausting to maintain and deliver, and it's exhausting to watch also."
General manager Bill Bauman agrees, and doesn't see much point in tarting things up for the ratings seasons. "This sweeps thing is an arcane, perverted system," he said, "and it causes TV stations all across America to do really dumb stuff three times a year."
Bauman recently ventured a rare gesture of cross-station civility, when he told the Orlando Business Journal that WKMG's LYNX exclusive was "a slam-dunk home run." Channel 6 reveled in the endorsement.
"I'm sitting in a bar [where] they've got Channel 6 on, and there's this promo. And there's my name rolling by," Bauman recalls. "And I'm like, what the hell's happening?"
It was a pretty ballsy move from a station so unrelentingly condescending to its own viewers.
But Channel 2 should easily regain its ratings dominance in the next few months. The station is unrivaled in its political coverage, and that will be a huge advantage now that Mayor Glenda Hood has resigned. Sure it's fun to throw transit officials under the bus, but how will Local 6 handle the five candidates who have queued up for Hood's job?
It will be impossible to successfully compete with WESH. These guys hosted the congressional debates in their own studios, for God's sake. And they didn't use hidden cameras.
WKMG's general manager, Henry Maldonado, told the Orlando Sentinel that they would "be bums again" after this sweeps victory. Apparently, Local 6 won't need its viewers again until February. That's the next sweeps period, when the rates will once more be set for advertisers, and viewers will be tricked into missing the news.