Civic Catalyst Newsletter
When Citizens Asked the Questions, Viewers Tuned In
A healthy share
of viewers tuned in to televised political forums last fall
where real people asked real questions about real problems.
Here are three examples of how substituting citizen panels
for reporters at these candidate forums brought big ratings
boosts for the television sponsors.
Boston . . .
Disappointed with viewership of five televised U.S. Senate
debates between Sen. John Kerry and Gov. William Weld, a
partnership of The Boston Globe, The Boston
Herald, New England Cable News and the ABC, CBS and NBC
stations replaced the previous panel of journalists with a
citizens' panel chosen from the database compiled by
"The People's Voice" civic journalism initiative.
"People's Voice" partnership of The Globe,
WABU-TV and public radio WBUR-FM used the citizens to help
guide reporting of campaign issues.
WHCH-TV (NBC) worked with the panelists to insure that their
questions weren't repetitive and that they were at ease
before the camera. According to the station's Special Events
Executive Producer Kate Shaplan, the new combination of
citizen's questions and a race that was heating up to a boil
made for something new and exciting.
especially exciting," she says, "is that questions
asked by citizens rather than reporters seemed to hold the
candidates more accountable in their answers."
Adding to the
excitement, viewership in the 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday night time
slot soared from the previous program's 570,000 people to
Wisconsin. . .
"We the People/Wisconsin," comprised of the
Wisconsin State Journal, Wisconsin Public Television,
Wisconsin Public Radio, WISC- TV and Wood Communications
Group, teamed with media partners across the state for the
first live, simultaneous broadcast of Congressional forums in
off with programs reporting on the results of a statewide
poll asking the people their concerns. Then, citizen panels
in Wisconsin's 2nd, 3rd and 8th Congressional districts
quizzed their Republican and Democrat candidates for Congress
in separate town hall programs. Segments from these programs
were then pulled together by Wisconsin Public Television to
make a two-hour show.
Ratings shot up
for all the programs, but in Madison, WISC-TV (CBS) and
Wisconsin Public Television racked up a combined 10 rating,
26 share in the prime time 7 to 8 p.m. Friday time slot. That
amounts to 60,500 viewers, and equals the leading network
programming for that time slot.
more than 100,000 viewers tuned in on one night to watch the
"Talk of the House" programs.
Dave Iverson, of
Wisconsin Public Television, calls the project "a
terrific example of how different media partners in different
markets helped to give an entire state a look at who their
next Congressmen will be."
Seattle. . .
Public television station KCTS more than doubled its
viewership for two primary election programs in which citizen
panels grilled Republican and Democrat candidates for
Seattle Times, KCTS and public radio stations KPLU-FM
and KUOW-FM launched the project with a program based on a
statewide issues survey that revealed people were concerned
about ethics and morals. Then came the two forums, the only
statewide gubernatorial forums in prime time. The citizens
panel asked questions, then gave way to questions from the
response was "overwhelming," according to Lisa
Smith, who was KCTS senior producer for public affairs.
"The middle school gymnasium from which we broadcast was
packed with hundreds of people, and our ratings were more
than twice what they usually are in that time slot," she
says. "I was surprised at the quality of questions from
the citizens and at the thoughtful and direct answers they
elicited from the candidates."
the project as a skeptic of citizen panels," Smith says.
"Now I'm at least a partial believer."
She's not alone.
While all those involved caution against leaping to
cause-and-effect relationships between citizen panels and
viewer interest, they're almost jumping for joy over the
audiences they attracted.
Public Television's director of programming James Steinbach
put it: "These numbers show that citizens will watch a
political forum if they believe it reflects issues, values
and concerns of their fellow citizens."
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