BIZ: SWEEPING CHANGESHey, couch potatoes: You say you’ve found local television news a little tame of late? Well, fasten your seat belts – the picture may soon change. This month marks the return of the Nielsen ratings to the market, and that will have TV programmers turning up the heat.

Nielsen Media Research is the national ratings firm that collects audience share data for TV stations throughout the country. The company not only gives broadcast owners fodder for self-promotion, but more importantly, it provides the basis for setting or modifying their advertising rates.

For the past 20 months, the New Orleans market has operated sans Nielsen because the Katrina-induced exodus from the city forced the company to suspend local data collection.

This month brings the return of local “sweeps,” the period during which Nielsen asks designated TV viewers to keep a diary of their viewing activity. Nielsen collects the viewer responses and then compiles a “book” that gives a snapshot of average viewer habits during specific time slots. The book becomes something of a bible in the hands of media buyers.

Sweeps periods always elicit a parade of “special” coverage and “in-depth” reports from news operations anxious to show growth in their market share. During this month’s sweeps, look for local programmers and news directors to pull out the stops as they seek to demonstrate that they have maintained or improved their pre-Katrina positions. Will WWL-TV/Channel 4 retain its title as the market leader? Will WDSU/Channel 6 show progress in its ongoing push toward the top spot? How do WVUE and WGNO stack up in the current competition?

The questions are yet to be answered. Although the stations will begin seeing viewer rankings almost immediately after May sweeps begin, the first book probably won’t be released until June.

In the meantime, Don Cooper, the longtime executive director of the Greater New Orleans Broadcasting Association, says even without the Nielsen ratings one thing is certain: New Orleans’ position relative to the national media market has decidedly  changed.

Ranked at No. 43 in terms of media market size before Katrina, New Orleans today stands at No. 54 because of its dramatically reduced population. “That affects us with national media-buying,” Cooper says.

Major advertisers, such as fast-food companies and pharmaceutical firms, which buy TV time from network affiliates across wide swaths of the country, generally base their buys on market size, he says. “Some buys are just for the top 50 markets.”

Even though local advertising revenue took a hit from Katrina, media watchers say the local market has held up fairly well thus far. Cooper says that’s because new advertisers have stepped in to replace some of those that fled. Construction companies, home improvement businesses and auto dealers, for example, have done much more advertising than usual during the past year.

But much of this business is directly related to recovery and rebuilding and is unlikely to prop up advertising revenue over the long term. “How long it will continue is difficult to gauge,” Cooper says. The bigger question is how quickly the city will return to its pre-Katrina population. “I don’t think anybody has a real firm handle on that,” he says.

While local stations gear up to show their stuff during May sweeps, viewers can look forward to other kinds of changes on their TV screens. For one thing, as the 2009 deadline approaches for a federally mandated shift from analog to digital broadcasting, the networks will offer more and more high-definition (HD) programming. Locally, as cable provider Cox Communications Inc. inks deals with the network affiliates to carry their digital transmissions in the cable lineup, viewers with appropriately outfitted televisions will begin to experience more local and network HD programming — a feast for the eyes of viewers accustomed to more traditional technology.

In addition, rumors are swirling about potential new programming on an “old” TV  station. WWL-TV owner Belo Corp. recently completed an agreement to buy local station WUPL/Channel 54 from CBS Television. The deal settled a dispute over the purchase that arose between Belo and CBS after Hurricane Katrina, and it created a second local TV “duopoly” (the first being Tribune Broadcasting’s ownership of WGNO/Channel 26 and WNOL/Channel 38).

The deal with CBS also strengthens Belo’s ability to reach consumers — and draw advertisers. For years WWL has leveraged its news operation by continuously rebroadcasting its half-hour local news programs on Cox Cable Channel 15. With WUPL coming into the fold as a sister station, Belo could launch a new local news program using many of its existing resources. Some observers speculate that a 9 p.m. news program could be in the works. That would give WWL and WUPL a chance to compete with both WVUE/Fox 8’s established hour-long 9 p.m. news and the half-hour news program that WGNO now offers on WNOL/Channel 38.

As the action unfolds in TV land, local radio audiences may be in for some changes as well. Radio owners across the country are in the process of a digital shift. “HD radio is coming to the marketplace,” Cooper says.

The HD radio signal enables listeners to see on their radio displays information about the program they are hearing, much like the track information that satellite radio subscribers now see on their screens. “I think by the end of this year we will have a lot more HD radio in the local market,” Cooper says.

He says that would be a welcome development for owners of local radio stations which, like TV stations, have taken some lumps since Katrina.