This Station Group Takes Politics Seriously

Hearst-Argyle's "Commitment" lives up to its name

Last December, as New Hampshire voters engaged in their quadrennial flirtation with presidential politics, WMUR Manchester scrapped traditional sound-bite news, opting instead for its own version of reality TV.

Barrett's kingdom
Station MKT. (affiliate; ch.) MKT. RANK % of U.S. covered*
*As calculated by the FCC
S = satellite station
M = management agreement, station owned by Hearst Corp.
OTHER MEDIA INTERESTS: Two radio stations; program and syndication partner with NBC Enterprises. Online interests: ProAct Technologies Corp. (personal-finance-human-resources Web site); about 24% of Internet Broadcasting Systems Inc. (site developer). Parent Hearst owns Hearst Entertainment and Syndication, 50% of Lifetime Television (joint partner with ABC Inc.), New England Cable News (with MediaOne), TVA (Brazilian pay company, with ABC), 20% of ESPN, A&E Television Networks (joint venture with NBC and ABC), newspapers, monthly consumer magazines including Esquire, Town & Country, Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar
WCVBBoston (ABC; ch. 5)62.207
WMURManchester, N.H.-Boston (ABC; ch. 9)6
WMORTampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. (WB; ch. 32)130.760
KCRASacramento, Calif. (NBC; ch. 3)191.151
KQCASacramento, Calif. (WB; ch. 58)19
WESHOrlando, Fla. (NBC; ch. 2)201.148
WTAEPittsburgh (ABC; ch. 4)211.093
WBALBaltimore (NBC; ch. 11)240.994
WISNMilwaukee (ABC; ch. 12)310.807
WLWTCincinnati (NBC; ch. 5)320.801
KMBCKansas City, Mo. (ABC; ch. 9)330.799
KCWE*Kansas City, Mo. (UPN; ch. 29)33
WYFFGreenville, S.C.-Asheville, N.C. (NBC; ch. 4)350.743
WPBFMWest Palm Beach, Fla. (ABC; ch. 25)390.329
WDSUNew Orleans (NBC; ch. 6)420.618
WXIIGreensboro, N.C. (NBC; ch. 12)460.595
KOCOOklahoma City (ABC; ch. 5)450.597
WGALHarrisburg, Pa. (NBC; ch. 8)470.588
KOATAlbuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M. (ABC; ch. 7)490.582
KOCTSCarlsbad, N.M. (ABC; ch. 6)49
KOFTSAlbuquerque , N.M. (ABC; ch. 3)49
KOVTSSilver City, N.M. (ABC; ch. 10)49
WLKYLouisville, Ky. (CBS; ch. 32)500.287
KCCIDes Moines, Iowa (CBS; ch. 8)720.376
KITVHonolulu (ABC; ch. 4)710.376
KHVOSHilo, Hawaii (ABC; ch. 13)71
KMAUSWailuku, Hawaii (ABC; ch. 12)71
KETVOmaha, Neb. (ABC; ch. 7)780.363
WAPTJackson, Miss. (ABC; ch. 16)890.150
WPTZBurlington, Vt.- Plattsburgh, N.Y. (NBC; ch. 5)910.298
WNNESHartford, Vt. (NBC; ch. 31)91
KHBSFt. Smith, Ark. (ABC; ch. 40)1080.120
KHOGSFayetteville, Ark. (ABC; ch. 29)108
KSBWMonterey-Salinas, Calif. (NBC; ch. 8)1200.214

In a one-hour special,
On the Campaign Trail,
the Hearst-Argyle station gave viewers a much more personal slice of campaign life. In one segment, it visited the apartment that then-candidate Joe Lieberman and his wife rented in Manchester (usually candidates stay in hotels) and even offered a scene of Lieberman doing his laundry. Likewise, the special gave a glimpse of Gen. Wesley Clark's exercise routine, including swims at the YMCA, and took a campaign-bus ride with Sen. John Edwards and his two small children.
Coverage of the New Hampshire primary actually began in earnest last May. WMUR sponsored town-hall meetings, conducted one-on-one interviews, broadcast special-issue forums and live debates, as well as preparing countless reports about the candidates and the presidential primary campaign.

Like others in the Hearst-Argyle Television family, WMUR has one mandate: to provide the most comprehensive news coverage of national, state, and local campaigns possible. Referred to corporately and on the air as Commitment 2004, it has been a part of the company's policy since 2000.

It's a priority for Hearst-Argyle President and CEO David Barrett, a driving force behind the initiative. "He really believes in it," says Candy Altman, vice president of news for Hearst-Argyle Television.

"The commitment project grew out of our conviction that comprehensive coverage of the political process is something our viewers want," says Barrett. Viewers rely on us to help them be informed about candidates and issues in every election cycle."

It also makes sense on the bottom line. The heavy coverage makes the stations an even more attractive choice for political advertising, he says.

Essentially, stations commit five minutes a day to candidate-centered coverage. Those segments must air during prime news times (5-11:35 p.m.) in the 30 days prior to primary and general elections.

"We encourage political programming throughout the year, not just the 30 days prior to the election," says Altman. And there are rules that give coverage some integrity. For example, a story about political poll results doesn't count as part of the five minutes. Those stories should be part of the regular coverage, she says.

During the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, Hearst-Argyle stations broadcast a cumulative 200 hours of political news, according to Altman.

Besides five minutes a day of "candidate sound," stations aired debates, interviewed candidates in their homes, televised dinners with the candidates and local families, and conducted interviews in the studio followed by questions on the Internet.

"Truth checks'' of political ads were another valuable asset in covering elections. Station Web sites are also chock full of political information.

A five-minute obligation might seem a news director's nightmare. Altman doesn't think so: "Newspeople like to do political coverage. This is a fun project for news managers because it challenges them to come up with different ways of covering politics."

Hearst-Argyle ABC affiliate WAPT Jackson, Miss., met that challenge during last year's political fireworks between then Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and his Republican challenger, Haley Barbour. Trying something new, the station set up a dinner for the candidates with a typical Jackson family. "We allowed the family to dictate the questions and the conversation," says News Director Bruce Barkley. "It was less staged and more unpredictable."

When it was Barbour's turn for dinner, something unexpected happened: His wife, Marsha, accompanied him. There was a last-minute scramble to add a place setting, and dessert had to be shared "`We got a little flak from the Barbour campaign for including that piece of information," says Barkley. "They felt like we were taking a shot at them." But viewers got a frank political conversation and a real picture of a dinner party—even the kind that has a glitch.

With the campaign rife with mudslinging, WAPT had ample opportunity to do "truth checks.'' NAFTA and its affect on the region became a hot issue. Musgrove portrayed Barbour as a NAFTA supporter. Barbour ran an ad citing numbers showing how many jobs left during the Musgrove years and didn't include numbers for jobs added.

WAPT set the record straight. A segment illustrating the loss and gain of jobs in the state aired. Barbour's campaign grumbled, says Barkley. But the station saw a need for balance.

Clearly, others in the television industry are devoting time to election news, but Hearst-Argyle stands out. "Hearst-Argyle is a leader in this area," says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran. "I think some of the innovations they've introduced into their campaign coverage could inspire others to take a similar approach."

The group has twice been awarded the University of Southern California-Annenberg School's Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism, for coverage of the 2000 and 2002 elections, respectively.

"Hearst-Argyle stations aired some of the country's best coverage of campaign news," says Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School and director of the Norman Lear Center, which oversees the awards, "and they also had political stories, and more minutes in those stories, than the national averages." Furthermore, he adds, Hearst-Argyle's commitment clearly dispels the notion that covering politics is "ratings poison."

That explains why Hearst-Argyle's WYFF, an NBC affiliate in Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C., preempted Friends
for the Democratic presidential debate earlier this year. The station "owned'' the night, says News Director Andy Still. Viewers tuned in for the debate and came back at 11 p.m. for expanded news coverage.

WYFF and The Greenville News
teamed up to pick six families to follow through the election year. The station invited those families to the studio for dinner and the debate. The dinner and reaction to the debate was featured during that newscast.

The truth check is popular in Greenville, too. During the 2002 Senate and governor's campaigns, the station ran The Best of Truth Check,
a one-hour special on the Saturday before the election. That program even beat out Jeopardy.
"The viewers loved it," Still says. "They went nuts."

Of course, aggressive political coverage cuts two ways. Politicians frequently gripe about the cost of political ad time but don't always jump at a chance to appear on local TV where they can't control the content. Hearst-Argyle sometimes encounters candidates reluctant to participate in televised debates or even taped interviews, says Altman: "Candidates want to speak directly to the people. They don't want any questions."

KCCI Des Moines, Iowa, shares that frustration. In 2002, the station offered candidates in the gubernatorial and Senate races an opportunity for a prime time debate. It never happened. The incumbents weren't interested, says News Director Dave Busiek. "Incumbents don't want to give their challenger that kind of a forum. They'll give you some lame excuse and then wink at you."

But Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin accepted another station's offer. Busiek says that debate aired Saturday afternoon, opposite a University of Iowa football game.

Not surprisingly, KCCI's coverage of this year's Iowa caucuses was extensive. Democratic presidential candidates were profiled, and the CBS affiliate carried a series of interviews with each of them that were produced through a collaborative effort of co-owned WMUR and WCVB Boston. KCCI offered three hours of live coverage of the caucus starting at 8 p.m.

Even one of the industry's harshest critics, The Alliance for Better Campaigns, applauds Hearst-Argyle's commitment. In 2000, the Alliance and others urged broadcasters to comply with recommendations of a White House commission calling for five minutes per day of political coverage 30 days prior to the election.

The industry largely ignored the recommendation, says Alliance President Meredith McGehee. But, she adds, Hearst-Argyle "deserves great credit for saying we're going to invest in this because, if it's done right, we can make this watchable television."

Says McGehee: "If you have a willing management and good journalists, nothing is more interesting than American politics."