The Tie-In Story: An Ethical Way to Boost Ratings?

by Al Goldstein 

Almost every day was an effort to reconcile station profits with public service, when I was news director at Channel 4 in the early 1990’s.  That effort intensified during “sweeps” or rating periods, when the size and demographics¾age, gender, wealth¾of the newscast audience determined how much a station charged for its ads.

One technique for boosting audience particularly troubled me¾the “flow” or “tie-in” story. It’s when a local newscast runs a story on its late evening news that’s connected in some way with a popular network entertainment show broadcast earlier the same night.

Tie-ins continue to be aired at three of the four most popular Bay Area stations, even though ethicists criticize them and research indicates that audiences feel manipulated.

In the most recent “sweeps,” for example, Channel 5 repeatedly teased a story about an alternative ending for European viewers of CBS’s two-part dramatization of the life of Jesus. That story ran on the 11 p.m. local newscast. Channel 7 teased a celebrity interview with “NYPD Blue” actress Andrea Thompson on the night of the program’s season finale. Reporter Wayne Friedman’s “interrogation” of the actress ran on the 11 p.m. local news.

How tie-ins work


Tie-in stories are carefully planned, and strategically placed in the newscast. Here’s how it worked at KRON when I was news director. The entertainment program “LA Law” preceded or was the “lead in” to our 11 p.m. newscast, I believe, on Thursday nights. 


The show had high ratings and was a pop culture hit.  I sent a reporter and crew to Los Angeles for a behind-the-scenes look at the program and to interview its more popular cast members.  The crew came back with four stories, which we ran in the newscast on four successive Thursdays during sweeps.  The story topics were heavily promoted during “LA Law” to reach our target audience. 


The stories, themselves, were placed in the newscast so they would begin about 11:20 p.m. and end about 11:22 p.m., what I call the “flow story position.”  This placement was married to a method used by rating companies to measure audience size. That method, simplified, gave a station credit for a viewer who watched the newscast from 11:15 p.m. to 11:22 p.m. and then went to bed.  The concept was to get the “LA Law” audience to “flow” into the newscast with a story that would “tie-in” with their motivations for watching the entertainment program. The tie-in would also be promoted during advertising breaks in the newscast, lest any carry-over viewers tune out.


Some news directors disdain them


Channel 2 News Director Andrew Finlayson told us the station does not use tie-ins. “The long-standing tradition [here] is to focus on the day’s news,” he explained.  “I think tie-in stories are clearly designed to entice and that there is some level of audience manipulation.”


Grade the News contacted Bob Steele, the Ethics Chairman at the Florida-based Poynter Institute, an organization dedicated to improving journalism. We asked about tie-ins run by Channel 7 when it sent a reporter to New York for stories about the highly popular game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” The stories were heavily promoted, and placed in the 11 p.m. newscast on nights “Millionaire” aired on the ABC (which owns Channel 7). Steele called the practice “shilling for the entertainment business. It [is] taking resources and committing them to a story that is not as important as other issues in the Bay Area.” 


Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a coalition of journalists headquartered in Washington DC, commented “when all you’re doing is pap in search of an audience, that’s not good.”


Audiences mistrust tie-ins


Gottlieb said he learned from focus groups (research in which audience members are asked to watch a program and then talk about what they liked and disliked) that audiences know when they are being “tied-in.” “They make fun of it,” he said, and call it “that story that follows the movie of the week.” Both Gottlieb and Steele warned that a pattern of running this type of tie-in story risks a station’s news credibility with its audience. 


Grade the News tried repeatedly to reach Channel 7 News Director Ed Kosowski for a response, but he did not take or return our phone calls. We also tried to reach Channel 5’s acting news director Bill Payer. He declined specific comment. “The news management team is in transition and given that, I’m uncomfortable giving an interview,” he said.


Are there justifiable tie-ins?


We asked Channel 4 News Director Dan Rosenheim about a recent episode of  NBC’s popular drama “Law and Order” and a related story on that evening’s late newscast. In his view, Rosenheim said, the story was not really a tie-in.


He explained that a freelance producer approached him to do a story about substance abuse, specifically, an emerging drug called “blue nile.” Rosenheim said he agreed to the story.


Rosenheim said he decided to air the drug story during “sweeps” at 11 p.m., following “Law and Order,” and placed it deep in the newscast so that the story ended at about 11:22 p.m.


Rosenheim said he was unaware of the story line of the “Law and Order” episode. He ran the story following “Law and Order,” he said, only because the story matched the audience demographics of that program. “It was a better night [to run it] than on a night with an animated movie on leprechauns,” he explained. He justified the story as important and journalistically sound. 


As for running the story in the “flow story position,” Rosenheim said “we sometimes think about placing a story there, but the main consideration is journalism.” He said, “one of the interests is to keep the audience.” But, he added, “we can do justice to the public and still be successful [economically].”


The Poynter Institute's Steele, however, said “I understand the tactical value of a flow story and all other factors involved, but they should not be a driving force behind [news] placement. When too much weight is placed on demographics,” he said, “particularly when it enhances economics, it can undermine good journalistic values.”


Gottlieb, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, defended some uses of tie-in stories. They can be helpful, he said when they bring people into the newscast and expose them to issues they wouldn’t normally care about.  He added, “flow stories can be market-driven, but that’s okay, if they maintain journalistic standards.”


“It depends on the treatment of the story,” Gottlieb explained. “If you deliver, great! And if you can hold onto ratings, even better.”


But Gottlieb cautioned that stories should play where they deserve to be played, not where they maximize revenue for the station. That, he argued, “is a disservice to the community.”


Since I left the news director’s office, pressure on news directors to help increase station revenues has only increased.  Tie-in stories are often supported and sometimes demanded by upper management. They have become part of the station culture at many stations. News directors at such stations reject them at peril to their jobs. 

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