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TV News Coverage to Bring Bigger Ratings


A photo of a TV news executive watching several TV monitors

A TV news manager must take time each day to consider how his TV news coverage decisions will affect the size of that night's newscast audience.

Photo © John Eder / Getty Images
TV news coverage of the stories viewers care about most can lead to bigger Nielsen ratings. Choose your stories carefully so that your TV news coverage decisions will make an impact with your audience.

TV News Coverage: Picking the Right Discretionary Stories

If a plane crashes in your city, you'll provide breaking news coverage, like every other station in town. That's one battle you must win in order to get better ratings, but the other is in what some call "discretionary stories."

These are the stories you don't have to cover each day, you just choose to. They are the stories about medical breakthroughs, school happenings and human interest features, like a 102-year-old woman who's learning to drive.

No, they are often not considered the day's important news. But those are the stories viewers will remember most after your news team signs off for the night -- much more so than the mayor's news conference that was the night's lead story.

Choosing the right discretionary stories begins in your morning news meeting. First, decide which news stories you have to cover and how much time they will take out of the newscast. These are the house fires, murder trials and other news-of-the-day assignments.

Then you'll know how much air time you have available for the stories you want to do. You may even decide to skip sending a full crew to a news conference so you can shift that crew to cover the woman learning to drive, because you want to devote two minutes of air time to her and only 30 seconds to the news conference.

Consider the day's topical news promotion when assigning stories. You're likely to draw more viewers who want to see the woman than the mayor giving his third news conference of the week. So play up the feature story, even if it's the final story of the newscast.

TV News Coverage: Hitting Your Target Demographics

You'll know if your assignment editor is doing her job well if she's got a long list of discretionary stories, because anyone can check email or the fax machine to learn about planned news events. As a news manager, you have to take that long list and decide which assignments are worth covering from a ratings standpoint.

Your target demographics will help you make choices. Most stations want to reach people 18-49 or 25-54 years old, because those age groups are key in selling TV advertisements.

The 102-year-old woman story has universal appeal, so it would probably be a good choice for any newscast. Medical stories or tips about living healthier lives tend to appeal more to women, so they work best at noon or 5 p.m., when your audience is probably more female-driven.

Some TV stations don't present sportscasts at noon or 5 p.m. because more women are watching than men. But a feature story on a high school athlete who's successfully battled cancer is something that might appeal to women, especially if your news reporter has interviewed the student's parents. It would be helpful if you can tell your news reporter that his story on the athlete will run at 5 p.m. and to gear his interviews and writing to appeal to women, and specifically mothers.

Yes, it sounds as though you're stereotyping your viewers. Focus group research or a TV consultant can provide guidance. But you'll still have to trust your gut in deciding what an unseen group of people wants to watch in your newscast.

TV News Coverage: Programming and Counter-Programming

Take a look at the programming schedule for your TV station. Your prime time lineup can help you pick stories for your late-night newscast.

For instance, CBS gets consistently solid ratings from its CSI drama series. If you work for a CBS affiliate, you could purposely choose local stories about crime, police investigation technology or murder mysteries for your 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. news.

You would heavily promote those stories during CSI in order to keep your audience. The strategy is that your network is giving you a large lead-in audience. Your task is to lure those viewers to your newscast when they otherwise might change the channel or go to bed.

Counter-programming against your competitors is important, too. If a rival station has the Super Bowl, which is going up against your late newscast, you can bet that sports fans are watching the game and not flipping over to catch your newscast.

This will be one newscast that you want to downplay, or even eliminate sports. Playing toward the stereotypes, you may decide to create the most women-driven newscast you can, though millions of women also enjoy watching the Super Bowl. On this night, you're likely to get killed in the ratings, so you may not want to put much strategic thought into your coverage.

You've no doubt invested a lot of thought and money in hiring news anchors and developing image promotion to boost ratings. Don't forget that the daily TV news coverage decisions you or your team make can also drive an audience to prefer your station over all the others.

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