Bakersfield TV Takes Steady Swing at the Ratings Box

Times Staff Writer

Here in the land of truck stops and dust storms and Buck Owens--a mere 109 miles northeast of NewsCenter 4, Action 2 News and the Eyewitness News Team--lies the 148th largest TV market in the nation.

But Bakersfield's broadcast news, especially during sweeps, seems more likely to be beaming down from another planet than it does from just over the Grapevine.

Here the lead story last week on all three local newscasts was about a grammar school student who went to school after having been exposed to AIDS. Parents, teachers, school officials, health experts, more parents, more officials, more experts were interviewed. For several days running, the stations followed the story.

For sweeps, health care and toxic waste disposal--not fad diets and child porn--are subjects for news series. No in-depth reports on nude beaches or freeze-dried lap dogs for Kern County's 350,000 viewers.

In Bakersfield, as KBAK-TV Channel 29's general manager Frank Gardner puts it, there is no room for "(breasts) and tots, vets and pets."

Gardner's contemptuous shorthand for sweeps news programming in Los Angeles is shared by KBAK's news director Henry Mendoza.

And, as battle-scarred veterans of the Los Angeles sweeps wars, they should know.

"I see glimpses of softer approaches, but we don't do (sweeps mini-docs on) lesbian nuns or eating chocolate in Bakersfield," said Mendoza, a former Times reporter and producer at both KABC-TV and KCBS-TV. "It's a distinctive trait of the market that these people are more serious about their television news."

Because 67% of the market's homes have cable television, most viewers here have the choice of all the Los Angeles stations, a Spanish-language station in Hanford, an independent station in Visalia and the three Bakersfield stations: KGET-TV Channel 17 (NBC), KERO-TV Channel 23 (CBS) and KBAK.

If viewers want sensational sweeps newscasting, they can get KNBC-TV Channel 4 or KABC-TV Channel 7. The Los Angeles stations each averages a 2%-4% share of the viewing audience. KBAK, in contrast, had a 7% audience share in the November ratings.

And Gardner is betting that Bakersfield viewers want meaty, in-depth local reporting rather than L.A.-style sweeps offering.

He's betting, too, that Bakersfield viewers want a station that's a part of the community. KBAK stages an annual hospital auction, various fund drives and a holiday food-bank operation for the homeless that, says Gardner, will create a loyal audience year round.

Neither Mendoza nor Gardner is sure just why sweeps "sleaze" doesn't play in Bakersfield. In form, if not substance, TV news on the three network affiliates here is not all that different from Los Angeles.

At ABC affiliate KBAK, for example, the anchors are a wizened white-haired Don Clark and his self-consciously poised female foil, Jerri Fiala, playing a more folksy, down-home version of John Beard and Kelly Lange.

Sports do not come to you live from the Forum. It's hometown tournaments with Charlie Adams, emphasizing the goings-on at Bakersfield State.

The weather is delivered in traditional happy-talk fashion by a balding, paternal Dan Schaeffer. He grins and nods when Clark advises that high winds make it "no day to haul a camper over the Grapevine."

But in terms of news stories, KBAK changes very little for sweeps, even though the stakes are far higher than they are in a large market like Los Angeles.

The 15 largest markets in the United States are measured electronically every day by A. C. Nielsen's meter system while small markets like Bakersfield are not rated with meters at all. Bakersfield and nearly 200 other smaller U.S. markets are dependent solely on the sweeps diaries, mailed out to selected households four times a year in November, February, May and July.

Sweeps are still a concern to the major markets because Nielsen sends out more than 100,000 special diaries surveying the national audience's demographic characteristics. Sweeps diaries give broadcasters a fix on just who in the family watches a particular program.

"What we do (for sweeps) is take stories we might do anytime, or have already done, and tighten them up and then promote them with a little more aggression," Mendoza said.

The big sweeps effort for KBAK this month, for example, is a special weeklong report on hospital layoffs, the nursing shortage and an excess of patient beds in Kern County.

"We found a health-care crisis here in Kern County," anchor Fiala tells the audience in the classic alarmist tone of a sweeps-inspired newscaster.

But sweeps sensationalism doesn't go much beyond that.

For Gardner, Bakersfield is his chance to prove that a station can succeed without having to make radical shifts in its newscasts, either for sweeps or out of a sense of ratings-cellar desperation. When he left third-rated KCBS after the failure of his much maligned "news wheel" experiment in October, 1986, he came to third-rated KBAK.

Bakersfield had all the potential of full-blown culture shock for Gardner. Before introducing the 20-minute life-style, health and soft news segments of the KCBS news wheel to disastrous ratings in the fall of 1986, Gardner was on the CBS executive fast track. Many of his former KCBS confreres say he is in exile in his current position.

Gardner is more philosophical.

"The cliche would be to say, 'Yeah, what a culture shock.' But it really wasn't. I was very fond of Los Angeles and still am, but I'm extremely fond of Bakersfield because it's such a pleasant place to live and work in and raise your family. You feel like you can touch the edges whereas in Los Angeles you have that sort of drowned feeling all the time."

Today, both KBAK and KCBS are third in their markets. That can't last forever in Los Angeles or Bakersfield, Gardner says, but trying to turn a station around in one or two sweeps ratings periods is as absurd as being satisfied with remaining in third place.

"Patience is the one thing that is in shortest supply in this industry," he said. "It's at every level everywhere. Sweeps are an attempt to speed the ratings process up, but I think the fact of the matter is that you cannot speed the process up beyond a certain point. The public's a lot smarter than it's given credit for being, and it knows how to sort out the difference (between sweeps and non-sweeps programming)."

Gardner's total KBAK staff consists of 53 people. He had 441 on the payroll at KCBS. Instead of relying on department store ads or slick agency commercials for nationally advertised brands, KBAK exists on the largess of hometown advertisers such as Hanford Home Loans and Olde Port Fresh Fish Grotto.

"Sweeps are crucial, absolutely, because you live or die by them," he said. "The pulse gets taken four times a year and if your heart ain't beating, you're pronounced dead. It's about that simple."

He just wants the pulse taken a few more times.

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