Indianapolis TV news market attains rare double honor: Local affiliates think hefty investment in investigative journalism will pay off with higher viewer ratings

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For the first time, two Indianapolis television stations nabbed coveted Peabody Awards-among the highest honor given for TV productions worldwide-in the same year.

WTHR-TV Channel 13 and WISH-TV Channel 8 were notified of their awards this month and will accept them June 4 at a ceremony in New York City.

The Peabody certainly polishes the image of both stations, but it’s less clear how it will affect the bottom line of WISH or WTHR.

The Peabody has been presented by the University of Georgia for the last 66 years. The only other Peabody won by a TV station in this market was by WRTV-TV Channel 6, then WFBM-TV, in 1969.

The last time two local affiliates won a Peabody in the same year was in 1986 when two Boston stations were honored. The only other times it occurred was in New York in 1977 and Chicago in 1966 and 1979.

This year, 35 Peabody’s were awarded, with the majority going to such production giants as ABC, NBC and the British Broadcasting Corp. Only five of this year’s awards were won by local affiliates.

“I was absolutely floored when I saw the Peabody results,” said Robert Papper, a Ball State University telecommunications professor and researcher for the Radio and Television News Directors Association. “It reflects very well on the stations and thereby this market.”

WTHR won for reports on inadequate tornado-warning sirens and on drug stores’ careless disposal of clients’ personal data.

WISH was honored for its Middle East reports on U.S. soldiers sustaining serious head injuries because of inadequate helmet padding.

“This work shows a real commitment by these stations to investigative journalism,” Papper said.

But the commitment comes at a cost. Industry experts said WTHR and WISH spend between $1 million and $2 million annually on investigative journalism.

WTHR and WISH executives said they will continue to invest in in-depth investigative stories.

“This station has been dedicated to investigative journalism since at least the 1980s, and we think it’s one of the key things that sets us apart,” said WISH General Manager Jeff White. “We have five people now committed to just investigative reporting. I think that shows our level of commitment.”

It’s certainly a good community service to be a watchdog, but unless stations can promote the stories and turn them into higher viewer ratings, the work means little to the station’s bottom line, said long-time local media buyer Bill Perkins, president of Perkins Nichols Media.

“All the advertisers care about is the audience numbers,” Perkins said. “We don’t buy programs based on awards. We buy them based on the audience.”

WTHR and WISH officials said their investigative stories boost those numbers.

During a special investigative segment in February about restaurant health violations, WTHR officials said they saw their ratings almost double from the same time slot a week before.

But short-term gains are just the start, WTHR officials said.

“These stories show our commitment to the community and our viewers, and helps us to build our brand as a news leader,” said WTHR General Manager Rich Pegram.

Though each station can claim its victories, WTHR has held the No. 1 local TV new ratings slot in many categories. WISH, overall, is a stout second in the market.

“I think the work done by both of these stations is pushing each other to new heights, and that’s good for viewers and advertisers,” Papper said.

Local newscasts are important, Perkins said, because advertising during those segments usually account for 40 percent to 60 percent of a local affiliate’s total revenue.

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