By Steve Kabelowsky Contributing Columnist Published May 22, 2015 at 3:51 PM Photography:

Numbers are what they are. They allow for a way to communicate a level of measurement of something.

At its very core, mass media obsesses over the numbers related to everything. I think it goes back to its engineering roots. In some shops, the numbers has become a full-time job.

The latest numbers are the ratings for the May sweeps, which wrapped up on Wednesday night. As always, the top headlines depend on how these numbers are presented. For the past years of coverage by, the focus has always deferred to sign-on to sign-off. We take the point-of-view of the viewer and the headlines don’t have to fit another PR spin zone, just like when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had to mention WTMJ in the main headline even if the better story was another station winning the 10 p.m. newscast.

Some background

─ The ratings numbers come from Nielsen, a company that focuses on media data gathering and has pretty much bought out every other company that has tried to do the same thing. In-fact, just a few years ago, it purchased Arbitron, which was an older firm that measured radio.

─ Nielsen will only make its numbers available to the stations and clients that pay for them. This has always been a bit of contention in Milwaukee, where The Milwaukee Journal owned the largest newspaper and finalized that with the takeover of the Sentinel, as it owned the two radio stations with WTMJ-AM 620 and WLWK-FM 94.5 The Lake. This was in addition to the now-measured WTMJ-TV Ch. 4, the NBC affiliate in the market.

So, when reporters and columnists at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or at 620 WTMJ wanted to report on the television sweeps periods, the information was available to them by way of WTMJ-TV management.

─  The stations pay for Nielsen to do the ratings. The fees paid by the stations allow the sales staff to share how one show may be performing better than another. Some buyers, at the national levels, may only purchase advertisements on the No. 1 or No. 2 stations depending on how they do with the ratings while compared to similar broadcasting on similar days. Most national sales may come through the affiliate, which has to base its rates on the local Nielsen numbers.

For a few years, some of the radio stations were not reported in the regular monthly reports. For now, WKLH-FM and WHQG-FM are reported as Saga Communications and Arbitron came to an agreement as Neilsen took over Arbitron. In that time, the stations were measured, but not shared.

Currently, 540 ESPN isn’t paying for Neilsen in Milwaukee. That means it cannot get measurements, nor can it go after clients saying it would perform better than someone else in any given.

Stations are told not to share results with others. Because of the Journal owning a good deal of the news outlets, it seemed a little unfair for the other outlets in this market trying to get others to take notice.

Politics were involved when this would happen. For a station like WITI to say it won at 10 p.m., it could pitch the news to the Journal to run the report. The reporter or then the wait would happen to see how WTMJ ended up in the headline in something like, "WTMJ most-watched station; WITI tops at 10 p.m."

The only other options was to purchase advertising in a Journal-own platform or find a different media to make a report like billboards, busses or and other digital sites.

The numbers

Neilsen says that each ratings point accounts for just more than 983,000 viewers in this market. To get the numbers, the service contracts with  a number of households that use a digital box on the tv to record when the set is on and what is being watched. Then, there are also written dairies that may be sent out to the same or other households. Diary families may latter be based to the boxes. In this market a family can only have the set box for three years.

Making a No. 1 station

In the past, the strength or determination of the top station was directly related to the race at 10 p.m. on weekday nights. Think about it, it made sense. In a day and age before the internet, or the reception of more than just a handful of stations, looking at the people watching the 10 p.m. on which channel could determine the "top station" in town.

The honor of letting a station call itself the best should take into account all of the work being done in other newscasts and original programs. A station may have poor primetime shows based on the affiliate’s offerings. However, promotion of the brand what the station has available through syndication or otherwise can be used to help combat that. Looking at the numbers beyond a single half-hour for five days a week may take longer, but in the long-run, it is a better look at the station, its offerings and its role in the community.

The Snag

In the latest run sweeps, two outlets are claiming different victories. I’ve seen it before, so, it is not unheard of.

"WISN 12 is southeastern Wisconsin’s most-watched station for the tenth consecutive year," the main headline from a press release from Thursday morning read.

It is a little more in contrast than the "Final May Households" headline I get from a sales one-sheet presentation I got from WITI-TV Fox 6 yesterday.

From WITI, there are two columns of numbers featured with one reading "May15 M-F Morning News HH Rtg/Shr. Then, the second column, underneath a star-burst and station image logos, "May15 M-Su Late News HH Rtg./Shr.

There are two types of viewers ─ the clients that purchase advertising, and the people watching who need to see messages from the clients. So far this year, we have one press release written in such a way to both audiences and a one-sheet that tells the story to the advertisers first, then members of the press second to get the news out to the market.

Merge these with a unanimous source that’s willing to stick their neck out to share all of the numbers as to be transparent with its marketing plans, then you may have enough to report how each station is doing with each of its local broadcasts. Remember, Nielsen doesn’t allow TV stations to share the ratings and reach numbers.

In years previous, at this point I’d either have to tap Steve Wexler at WTMJ-TV and 620-WTMJ to share a few thoughts on his station’s performance. Or, Journal Communications would follow with a release of its own.

I’d also send out a message to newsroom leaders at WTJT-TV CBS 58 to give them a chance to highlight some positives.

This year, I’ll be reaching out to Scripps to find out if I have to work locally or nationally to chat about WTMJ’s finishing spots. Also, there’s new leadership at CBS 58 to chat with.

Reporting results

On the same day of the numbers coming out, The Journal-Sentinel reported "WISN leads May sweeps" which pulls information on the numbers and a breakdown for most newscasts. At the end, it is sure to mention "Jeopardy" runs in place of a local newscast for CBS58 at 6.m.

Unless compelled to do anymore reporting, that’s where JSOnline will leave the reporting for the sweeps.

Then there’s longtime reporter Duane Dudek who sometimes writes for the Journal and does more at his own blog. The person who has never worked in television or even knows what Nielsen measures and how the measurements are done ─ I haven’t even stepped foot into zip code breakdowns, entertainment districts, educational impacts and demos that go beyond the gender and age ─ he’s ripping up the station management with the headlines of "WISN and WITI in virtual dead-heat at 10 p.m." and follows with "WITI disputes report of a tie with WISN."

Well I’m not sure he understands that the rounded up and rounded down numbers that are in a media report are different than the "overnights." Also, weekend numbers at 10 p.m. can be skewed because of sporting events, usually on Saturday nights, and this too will adjust the "numbers" of a "virtual dead heat." Also, the overnights are not carried with the same weight as the adjusted +3s, for timeshifting and possible power outages and technical data gathering issues that will change the numbers. So, for those announcing a winner at this time is lying. The fully-adjusted numbers, combined with the demographic data available at the middle part of the month following the measured time, will determine the fact-based winner.

Picking the "winner"

So, which station is the top in the area? It’s a good question that will be either told to you by the station itself making the claim, or someone else duped into thinking they really know everything that’s going on to write and share the headline.

And, to top all of this off, this is all based on 475-500 households being a great representation of the diverse likes and viewing habits for the close to a million people who live here.

So, like a good meteorologist does, I’ll take the information delivered to me like the National Weather Service always offers, throw in some historical context and with studying the way in which the environment reacts to the situation … I’ll finally make my forecast.

In media, it is called doing some analysis, not just regurgitating the reporting or trying to cause a "scandal" to boost’s oneself stature or popularity in a community. 

Steve Kabelowsky Contributing Columnist

Media is bombarding us everywhere.

Instead of sheltering his brain from the onslaught, Steve embraces the news stories, entertainment, billboards, blogs, talk shows and everything in between.

The former writer, editor and producer in TV, radio, Web and newspapers, will be talking about what media does in our community and how it shapes who we are and what we do.