DAVENPORT, Iowa — Yes, it's that time of year again, time for people here to pick their favorites.
Dole or Bush? Gephardt, Dukakis or Simon?
Wrong candidates, wrong race.
The candidates in this race are "News Center 6," "Active 8 News" and "Channel 4 News." They're "Wheel of Fortune," "A Current Affair," reruns of "Family Ties" and much, much more.
This vote is not for presidential preferences as part of today's state caucuses. It's for TV programs, in a different kind of balloting.
The February ratings sweeps.
If anything, ratings sweeps months may be more critical in this area known as the Quad Cities--consisting of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Ill.--than in Los Angeles and other enormous metropolises where TV ratings are counted daily.
In this middle-sized, economically depressed and largely blue-collar market of 350,000--the nation's 77th largest--ratings are compiled only in November, February, May and July. And July is deemed largely insignificant because of the fluctuating audience levels in summer.
There are four commercial stations in the Quad Cities, where a top news anchor reportedly commands $60,000 to $70,000 a year--compared to the $500,000-plus salaries in Los Angeles.
Davenport's KWQC, an NBC affiliate, is dominant. ABC affiliate WQAD in Moline and CBS station WHBF in Rock Island trail KWQC badly in this community split by the Mississippi River, and are seeking to narrow the gap by attracting more Iowa viewers. The relatively new independent station, KLJB in Davenport, is barely a hiccup in the ratings.
Comparing TV's sweeps atmosphere here with Los Angeles is like comparing Gary Cooper to Don Rickles.
"I remember lots of ads hyping sensational kinds of things," WQAD general manager H. Oliver Gillespie, a slow-talking Kentuckian who once taught communications in college, said about his visits to Los Angeles in sweeps periods.
For one thing, stations here don't have the budgets or staffs to trumpet and carry on as big-market stations do. For another, a different philosophy seems to prevail.
"Chicago and Los Angeles stations will sensationalize minidocs for sweeps, and that just doesn't happen here at any station," said Bob Hoffman, the chain-smoking WHBF general manager who previously was sales manager of a televison station in Chicago, where sweeps mania regularly eclipses sanity. "I think that viewers are too smart for that sort of thing and that stations in Chicago and Los Angeles don't give them enough credit."
Not that the competitive-minded stations here are dozing while two firms, Arbitron and the A. C. Nielsen Co., measure their February ratings. The profit motive is alive here too and WQAD's Gillespie estimates the worth of a single Quad Cities rating point at $15,000--no small sum in a market this size.
Consequently, as the temperatures outside plunge below zero, the sweeps temperatures steadily rise.
KWQC employs "every conceivable way we can think of to get viewers to watch in sweeps," said bearded station manager Joe Lentz, who less than two years ago was the station's sales manager.
Here you find only a hint of the shrieking newspaper ads for sweeps programming a la Los Angeles. Yet more than half the promotion budgets of KWQC and WQAD go toward sweeps months, and Hoffman says that his entire $300,000 promotion budget at WHBF is applied to these ratings periods.
What gets promoted?
Of the three largest stations, only KWQC gives much effort to the traditional sweeps series in news, which are either too comical to be heeded or too awful to be comical.
Although Lentz says that he and news director Steve Tuttle make the decisions on sweeps series, KWQC employs news consultant Frank Magid to advise it on everything from programming to talent.
There are some constants from market to market. On Friday, for example, anchorwoman Paula Sands concluded her three-part series on "What's Hot and What's Not" (go ahead and snicker), which should sound familiar to Los Angeles viewers. Also ready to air this month are "The Class of 2000"--about prospective high school grads at the turn of the century--and "Unsolved Mysteries," more sweeps deja vu for Southern Californians.
"These are obviously designed to keep people watching," Lentz said. Obviously.
In a more serious vein, KWQC is also doing two series on AIDS and repeating another that encourages viewers to have their cholesterol tested.
About 20,000 viewers responded last year, Lentz said. "It's been done by stations elsewhere, but it's important to be first in the market."
If such series are in the public interest, why not do them year- round instead of only when ratings are at stake?
"I'd like to get into that," said news director Tuttle. "But we're not CBS News. We don't have that kind of manpower." Adds Lentz: "That's not to say we lie down and do nothing the rest of the year."