How To Produce Sweeps Pieces Or Stories In Series Form

Brian Williams interviewing Mitt Romney

National elections make for ideal story series during sweeps.

In broadcast journalism, most stories are reported as they happen, and covering the new developments of a story for several days or even weeks doesn’t necessarily mean you’re producing a series on the topic. Generally, reporters and producers don’t think in terms of “I want to do a series of stories about X or Y.” Instead, they think in terms of, “I’d like to do a story about X and then I’m going to follow up to see if there are any new developments in the story about Y.”

However, there is a place for the production of a series in broadcast journalism. There are several situations in which you might want to do a series:

Sweeps weeks, when TV station ratings are measured—Nielsen sweeps months typically occur for the better part of November, February, May, and July, but as the measurement period increasingly straddle months, weeks have become a more common measurement period. And for major markets, where the numbers come in the next morning, every week is essentially sweeps week. To attract viewers during a ratings measurement period, broadcasters frequently run a series about a topic of local interest, looking at different angles of the story for each installment. Typical marketing messages will say something like: “How safe is the drinking water at area schools? If you are a parent, you’ll want to see this.” In small and medium markets, they still do the sweeps drill about four times a year.
• Big stories that can’t be covered all at once. These may include political topics, controversial local legislation, large disasters that continue for days after the main event (say, flooding and the resulting damage to property), or a local scandal or crime wave in which new information arises frequently.
• Small stations undergoing slow news periods may do a series to provide a more in-depth look at the few news topics that are available. This should not be done just as a way to fill time during a show—you should use the opportunity to provide value to your viewers, in the form of additional information or a new perspective on the same story.

How to Get Started

Approaching a series is not all that different than approaching your story or stories of the day. However, you will probably have a little more time to examine different angles if you’re working on a series. Ideally, that’s something you should do for every story, but sometimes, when you’re running around covering multiple topics, you may only have time to report the facts and move on to your next assignment.

Many broadcasters will ask each reporter to pitch an idea for a series to run during the upcoming sweeps month. There are a few ways to approach this. You can look back at recurring topics or issues you’ve reported on in the last few weeks or months and consider whether there are unexplored angles or simply opportunities to provide a more in-depth look at a story.

A profile on a prominent community member or close look at a local issue or problem is another option. You can also look at the many different stories you’ve covered and think about whether there might be a connection between some of them. Did you cover several different car accidents at the same intersection? Have you covered a lot of theft stories at a particular chain of local stores?

Another way to develop material for a special series is through the contacts and sources you build up over time. A good reporter always nurtures sources. Checking back occasionally with individuals you have interviewed in the past can lead to new, perhaps even bigger stories.

Alternatively, you can spend some time on your station’s social media feeds and try to get an idea of what viewers find interesting. Granted, some viewers’ suggestions may not be right for a series, and others may not be based in fact. However, if you keep seeing different people inquiring about a certain topic, or suggesting it should be covered in more detail, that might be worth considering.

Here’s an example: Several years ago, a local TV station covered a tragic story about a road worker who was killed by an intoxicated driver. She had no previous record, and claimed to have mixed up her daytime and nighttime medications on the day of the collision. Although she pled guilty to negligent homicide as part of a plea deal, she only served about ninety days, plus twelve months probation. A few years later, she was arrested on a DWI charge, bonded out of jail, and was subsequently arrested several more times for DWI and a variety of other charges. When local media covered each arrest, her previous conviction for negligent homicide was frequently mentioned.

As you might imagine, many viewers were outraged by the situation. After every story about a subsequent arrest was posted to local stations’ social media feeds, a deluge of comments from audience members followed. Many asked how an individual with such a history kept getting out of jail. Some suggested she was bribing a judge. Others demanded DWI laws should be toughened.

During a sweeps month, one local station ran a series about state and local DWI laws, as well as sentencing statistics, in an attempt to answer some of these viewer questions. The first installment described the arrest, conviction, and sentencing history of the habitual drunk driver. The reporter explained the leeway judges have in sentencing after a conviction of negligent homicide, and noted reasons judges typically give light sentences—first-time offenders, mitigating circumstances, etc.

The second installment looked at rates of DWI/DUI arrests and convictions, statistics on how many people actually served time for such offenses, and the frequency of repeat offenses for the same individual. A third installment included interviews with local legislators about proposed changes to local DWI laws that, in their opinion, would make the area safer from repeat offenders.

Tips for Covering a Series or Sweeps Piece

• Choose a different angle for each installment.
• Either provide new information or a new perspective in each installment.
• You are usually given more time for a series or sweeps piece. Use it to give the audience a more in-depth picture of the issue or story.
• If you’re doing a profile of a person, try to include details that have an emotional impact, in addition to the facts of the story. Show us the local scholarship recipient studying while riding the bus to his second job. Show us the pile of cold cases the police detective keeps on her desk and looks at once a week, even when she knows there are no new leads. Show us the mayoral candidate emptying the trashcans at his campaign headquarters like a regular person. Things like this often tell us more about a subject’s personality than the rehearsed talking points or nervous rambling you might hear in an interview.

Learn more about the School of Broadcast Journalism at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.
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