Swept up in change

WFMJ's slow-but-sure approach has landed it atop the ratings heap.
YOUNGSTOWN -- For local TV news outlets and viewers, this could be a February to remember.
Another "sweeps" period for ratings begins next Thursday. It's another chance for news departments to compete for bragging rights and advertising dollars as the "most-watched broadcast" in town.
Five years ago, the contest was anything but heated. WKBN-TV Channel 27 had a habit of winning big.
The competition has changed since then, literally and figuratively. So have the ratings.
Add to this new scenario what will be news in the coming weeks -- a congressman in court, a nation at war with terrorists, top athletes competing for medals -- and this ordinarily cold winter month should be a sizzler.
"I think you're going to see some competitiveness with this trial," Nick Matesi, news director at WKBN and WYFX 17/62, said of U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s racketeering charges.
6 o'clock champ: Wearing the November 2001 ratings crown is WFMJ, which clearly had the highest overall ratings at 6 p.m. weeknights (12 rating, 24 share) over WKBN (11 rating, 21 share) and WYTV (7 rating, 13 share), according to Nielsen Media Research.
It was a closer call at 11 p.m. weeknights, with WFMJ and WKBN receiving the same rating, but WFMJ had a higher share -- 10/25 vs. WKBN's 10/23.
(Ratings and shares are percentages. Ratings are estimates of how many TV households were tuned in to a program. Shares are based on how many TV households actually had sets turned on when the program was being shown.)
Back in February 1997, WKBN was king, running well ahead of the pack at 6 p.m. and beating WYTV at 11 p.m.
Asked what has changed in the past five years, members of local TV management point to many things.
"I think everybody's going after the viewer in a pretty hard way," said Matesi. He joined WKBN about 31/2 years ago, after the local Williamson family sold the TV station to North Carolina-based Gocom Communications.
Competitiveness is the norm in TV markets across the United States. "People have choices," Matesi said. "You just have to work harder to win their loyalty."
What makes Youngstown TV different, in Matesi's opinion, is what viewers here want in their newscasts. "This is a hard news town," he said. "People like consistency. ... Politics plays huge here."
Pat Livingston first worked at WYTV Channel 33 as a reporter. He left the station to join the management ranks in the Benedek Broadcasting chain but returned last year as news director of a station that was still learning to cope with corporate-ordered budget cutting that contributed to the loss of some key personnel.
Livingston has noticed how the playing field changed during the years he was away.
"All three stations put out good products, so you really have to be on your game at all times," he said.
WFMJ news director Mona Alexander has spent the bulk of her career in the Youngstown market. The former WKBN reporter says local TV news is more competitive today "because we're so much stronger of a news operation than we were. We've tightened up the race and moved ahead."
Besides a "commitment to good old-fashioned journalism, Alexander said WFMJ assembled a strong staff of on- and off-camera personnel over the past five years. Viewers saw the station's news reports improve slowly but steadily.
"It was a gradual building process, which is exactly what you want it to be," she said.
Newsy month: Nielsen Media Research takes surveys of local TV stations four times a year -- in February, May, July and November. Programming decisions and advertising rates are influenced by those reports, especially in May, when decisions are being made about the next TV season.
It's unusual for so many events to converge during February sweeps, but that's the case this year.
The Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City will be national news. This year's games could be a boon to NBC, which has broadcast rights to the games, and its affiliates.
WFMJ sales manager Jack Grdic says the wave of patriotism that swept the nation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could mean even bigger audiences.
All three news directors say they are putting a great deal of resources into covering Traficant's trial, which begins Feb. 4 in federal court in Cleveland. WFMJ has assembled a "Traficant task force" of local attorneys who will provide analysis of the proceedings.
The U.S. fight against terrorism has brought people back to TV, especially those in the 18-to-34 age group, WFMJ general manager John Grdic said.
The sweeps period will end Feb. 27, but the ratings race mind-set never concludes for some.
"When you are the No. 3 television station, every day better be a ratings period to you," WYTV's Livingston said.
Middle market: There's a difference of opinion among the TV stations as to whether any one entity will ever dominate this market again.
WFMJ's Alexander and the Grdics believe it can happen. "There's always the potential for the station that works the hardest and beats the bushes and [is] dedicated to community to come out in front," Alexander said. "Business is more competitive in general. ... That doesn't mean a station can't break out."
It's easier for one station to dominate in the smallest markets, more difficult in the largest markets, WKBN's Matesi said. Youngstown is in the middle -- ranked 98th out of Nielsen Media Research's 210 markets.
The playing field has leveled, WYTV's Livingston said: "All three stations have good owners, good management ... I just don't think people are going to pull away anymore."
WYTV doesn't want to be counted out. Livingston said he's pleased with his station's news, now operated under the motto "What Everybody Wants to Know." He believes his station is building momentum.
"It's up to us to make it a three-way race," he said.
Someday, it might even be a four-way race.
Gocom founded WKBN's sister station, Fox affiliate WYFX, in September 1998. Four months later, in January 1999, it launched a 10 o'clock nightly news report. Its ratings are small when compared with the prime-time programming offered by the Big Three networks, but "10 p.m. is still catching on," Matesi said.