Local TV ratings: The KSL difference is all in the focus
By Scott D. Pierce
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Mar 03 2013 01:01AM
One theory explaining KSL’s news ratings decline suggests the station’s emphasis on Mormon news has hurt. That theory doesn’t hold up in a recent five-day analysis of late-night newscasts. In the Feb. 18-22 analysis period, KSL reported on two stories directly related to its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the same number of stories about the church aired by two of its three competitors.
There was no marked difference in the way KSL, KUTV or KSTU handled the story of a former LDS missionary charged with rape. (KTVX did not cover the story.) Nor was there much difference in the way the four stations handled the story of the church increasing the number of missions.
Channel 13 (KSTU) had two LDS-related stories not reported on the other newcasts: one about a gay BYU student coming out and another about an LDS stake president delivering a political address from the pulpit.
The most pronounced pandering to LDS viewers was on Channel 13. As Zach Whitney reported on the expansion of LDS missions from 347 to 405, he offered a "little bit of LDS culture," telling viewers of a "competition for the best mission."
"It’s the Argentina Mendoza Mission," Whitney said, "where I served."
Attitude adjustment • Looking at the numbers, KSL doesn’t appear significantly different from its competitors.
In its marketing and promotional materials, KSL emphasizes upbeat, feel-good stories, but its newscasts weren’t markedly different from its competitors. Channel 13 aired eight feel-good stories; Channel 4 (KTVX) reported seven; Channel 2 (KUTV) did six; Channel 5 (KSL) did five.
(Note that Channel 13 airs hourlong late newscasts; the other stations’ newscasts are 35 minutes.)
But there’s more to the story than the numbers.
The difference between KSL and its competitors is in the attitude — an attitude summed up in a promo in which morning anchorman Scott Haws proclaims the goal is to "bring you stories that matter" with a focus on "their impact for your family."
That means stories such as a segment on a family whose children suffer from a rare disease are presented as tales of "faith, hope and good cheer," reporter Carole Mikita said.
"Wow, what a family," anchorwoman Nadine Wimmer said.
"Count your blessings," anchorman Mike Headrick added.
Beyond the in-house advertising, even in news stories that aren’t overtly Mormon, reporters include multiple references to faith and blessings.
Another Mikita piece, about a boy with muscular dystrophy, is about "his remarkable journey and his family’s faith," which have "inspired thousands."
KSL anchors make a clear attempt to connect with viewers on that level, with regular comments such as "parents need to be aware of what’s going on" and "all parents can learn from this mother."
KSL reporters don’t just tell viewers about a fatal accident, they report on an "awful, awful accident." They don’t just show you a barn full of starving horses, they tell you: "These pictures are hard to look at." A report on graffiti is accompanied by "maybe we can all help clean this up." A report on vandalism is accompanied by "there ought to be a law."
KSL asks for responses on Facebook ("What are you addicted to?"), and anchors read those responses on air.
Other stations also reach out to viewers and promote charitable causes. Every station aired multiple stories about a fundraiser for the family of an Ogden police officer killed in the line of duty a year ago.
And KUTV anchors Mark Koelbel and Shauna Lake spoke of being "inspired" by a story of a triathlete helping a boy with cerebral palsy, although without reference to faith and blessings. The station also ran a feature about the Osmond Girls singers — a way of saying Mormon without saying Mormon.
KSTU reporter Zach Whitney, again, proclaimed his religious affiliation in the midst of reporting a story.
Investigative journalism? • If investigations aren’t dead on local TV news, they certainly aren’t what they used to be.
In its heyday, KSL conducted investigations, exposed corruption and broke news. During the week in question, it labeled two stories (each running multiple nights) as "investigations." The first was about texting and driving; the second was about video-game addiction.
Neither broke news. (Channel 4 also did a story about texting and driving.)
The KSL segments were legitimate stories, but both looked more like a "Get Gephardt" segment on Channel 2 than "investigative journalism."
Go Cougars? • KSL and Brigham Young University are both owned by the LDS Church, but there was no cheerleading for the Cougars on Channel 5 newscasts.
On the other hand, the stations’ three competitors led their Feb. 19 sportscasts with the results of the Jazz-Warriors game, while KSL led with the BYU-Utah State men’s basketball game.
On Feb. 21, Channels 2 and 4 reported on the Utah-Colorado men’s basketball game (which had concluded) before the still-in-progress BYU-Saint Mary’s game; Channel 5 reversed that. (Both games were in progress and Channel 13 reported neither.)
Hyperlocal • There’s a reason these are called local newscasts. During the week, the four stations aired 211 local stories, 39 national stories and 10 international stories.
Five of those international stories were Channel 13’s "World in a Minute" features (a quick series of headlines counted as a single story in this tally); four were updates on Oscar Pistorius’ attempts to get bailed out of jail after he was charged with killing his girlfriend.
News you can use • With its nightly "Get Gephardt" segment, Channel 2 leads in this category with five stories. But it’s worth noting that Channel 5 aired four segments in the same time period.
Defining the news • Not once in five nights did all four newscasts lead with the same story.
The closest they came was on Feb. 19, when three of the four led with stories about Davis Romney Fotu, named as the second suspect in the Feb. 12 triple homicide in Midvale. Channel 13 slotted that story third, leading with a story about possible changes to Utah adoption laws.
Contests • Only one station even mentioned contests. Channel 2 ended each newscast with brief promos sending viewers to its Facebook page to enter to win a motorcycle.