| The response to the feature, which began in February
2001, was gratifying. The first night, the station received more than
500 calls and e-mails through its Web site. Since then, they added
a "phone bank" every other week staffed by station reporters,
who found themselves inundated with story ideas from viewers. News
director Mark Pipitone said the KMOL-TV consumer unit got 10 to 15
more calls a day with story suggestions, and station e-mails in general
were up substantially. "Viewers feel they can relate to us now,
better than before."
Pipitone says he came up with the idea
in response to research by NewsLab
and other organizations that shows local news viewership dropping
around the country, in part because people say the news is irrelevant
to their lives. "We've got to do something to bridge the gap
with the viewers," says Pipitone.
The local newspaper called the segment "a ratings ploy,"
noting that KMOL-TV is number three at 10 p.m. and "in dire
need of a boost." But Pipitone insists that "You Choose"
is not a gimmick, and it doesn't mean that the station has given
up editorial control of its newscasts.
Instead, the project challenged the conventional wisdom in the
newsroom about what viewers really want. "We think viewers
say one thing and do another," says Pipitone, noting that surveys
often show viewers asking for substance while ratings show they're
watching fluff. But KMOL's viewers tended to choose the more substantive
offerings. When offered a choice between stories about the Spurs
basketball team, an upcoming stock show and rodeo, or a school district
bond proposal, viewers chose the bond issue. Asked to choose between
reports on new allergy studies, making the IRS more user-friendly,
or cost overruns at the San Antonio convention center, viewers again
went for the local money story.
The choices to be offered each week were selected by the executive
producer from ideas submitted by people all over the station, as
well as story suggestions from viewers. The "losing" topics
often became material for other newscasts, although they may rate
just a v/o rather than a full package. "All shows are looking
for a way to get a 'Choose' answer on the air," Pipitone said
at the time.
Pipitone said that "You Choose" changed more than just
the on-air product at KMOL-TV. It changed the way his newsroom does
business. "This is not just a promotional ploy," he said.
"It has to be part of all we do, or viewers will see it as
hype." As an example, he cited a decision to ask viewers for
input on what aspect of a continuing story they wanted to learn
more about. Pipitone may soon add reporter e-mail addresses to the
standard CG, so viewers can reach reporters directly. And he's considering
a new position of "viewer representative" to make sure
that complaints and corrections are handled effectively.
All of these changes were motivated by the same goal, Pipitone
says. "We want to make ourselves more accountable."
The "You Choose" idea spread beyond San Antonio. WCNC-TV
in Charlotte adopted the approach in April 2001 after reading about
it on the NewsLab Web site. "We thought it would encourage
interaction with the audience and enterprise from our staff,"
said news director Keith Connors. WCNC did a "You Choose"
story every day at 5 p.m. "It has forced us to choose more
issue coverage over daily event coverage, and that has added balance
to the daily news budget," Connors said. Does it make a difference
to viewers? It seemed to. According to Connors, the numbers grew
for the 5 p.m. newscast, despite a sinking lead-in.
Mark Pipitone welcomes comments about the KMOL-TV
experiment: you can reach him at Pipitone@kmol.com