Some call it shameless. Others call it a ratings winner. On-air contests, once shunned as cheesy self-promotion, are gaining ground nationwide. The reason? Simple economics. Audiences are becoming more fragmented; cable is stealing broadcast viewers. Local stations have to compete fiercely for ratings and revenue.
Which is why gas giveaways have become a staple during the all-important May sweeps. Post-Newsweek's KPRC Houston, Gannett's WXIA Atlanta, and Meredith's KCTV Kansas City, Mo., are among stations that offer viewers free gas in what amounts to a watch-to-win contest.
WFSB Hartford, Conn., grabbed more than viewer interest. The competition cried foul over a morning-news promotion running in the last half of the May sweeps. The Meredith-owned CBS affiliate's "Pump Patrol Payoff" requires viewers to call a toll-free number for a chance to win one of three daily $50 gas cards. Winners need to know a secret code word, revealed at some time during the newscast.
And it's working.
In the 6:30-7 a.m. half-hour, WFSB has seen its household rating jump 13% during the contest period, from 7.0 to 7.9. Even a small incremental increase over a brief period bumps the station's numbers up a few tenths of a rating point in the demographic groups preferred by advertisers, resulting in thousands of dollars in additional revenue. "Take that over all the spots they would run in the morning, over all the weeks of the May book, it's a lot of money," says a competing station manager.
It also drew a lot of criticism.
The contest consumes a considerable amount of airtime. Anchors deliver frequent teases, reporters perform live shots in front of gas pumps, and winners' names crawl across the bottom of the screen. Last week, WFSB devoted nearly 10 minutes of its roughly 45-minute news hole to contest conversation, a fact that troubles Bob Steele, an expert in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"When we put these contests in our newscasts," he says, "we take time and emphasis away from significant issues and events."
WFSB News Director Lyn Tolan counters, "Connecticut has some of the highest gasoline prices in the country, and it's something our viewers are talking about. We recognize the tight situation a lot of families are in, so we decided to give away some gas to help."
Not that WFSB was desperate for a boost. The station typically wins most news time periods and was already on track to take No. 1 in mornings before the contest.
Still, competitors complain that the station is buying an audience. "High-quality journalism regularly attracts the audience most desired by advertisers," says Mark Hoffman, president and general manager at WVIT, which is owned by NBC. "We believe we're on the right road and don't need to resort to gimmicks or stunts to lure more viewers to our newscasts."
Sour grapes? Probably not. Nielsen Media Research discourages such activity, too. Its written guidelines to television stations state that those running contests that "require viewing ... to win a prize" will, at a minimum, receive a notation in the ratings book alerting advertising buyers and agencies that the station "conducted special promotional activity."
In extreme cases, Nielsen may delete a station's ratings from its published materials, but that rarely happens in the case of contests. Last year, Nielsen dropped KZTV, a CBS affiliate, from the Corpus Christi, Texas, book after the station ran a series of promotional spots during the November sweeps that featured the terms "Nielsen Ratings" and "TV Viewing Diary."
Tolan expects Nielsen will include a note about WFSB's contest when it releases Hartford's May book. She's not concerned—and doesn't think her competitors should be, either. "Someone will probably cry that they didn't win because of a $50 gas card," she says, "but they are only fooling themselves."