In 2004, NY1’s news anchor John Schiumo got into an argument with his producer about Martha Stewart. He didn’t think the Ms. Stewart’s court trials deserved a high ranking on the channel’s nightly newscast. “I was insisting that people didn’t care and she was insisting that people did care,” Mr. Schiumo explained. “So I kind of blurted out: ‘I want to host a newscast where the viewers tell me what’s news because nobody cares about this.’
“I lost the argument, but I walked away with the idea,” he said.
By July 2005, Mr. Schiumo had convinced NY1 producers that they should put a little power of news progamming into the hands of the viewers. Four years ago this week, Mr. Schiumo hosted the premiere episode of The Call, the first news show that allowed viewers to dictate the top stories of the day based on their online votes.
With all this recent chatter in the news business about catering to audiences, NY1’s The Call was on the ball.
Using an online, interactive “rundown” feature, users drag and drop stories reported on NY1 throughout the day in the order they want, as if they were news producers. There’s usually 10 to 12 articles stories to choose from and Mr. Schiumo discusses the top three ranked topics during the 9 p.m. show. Viewers can also email or call in to express their views live on-air.
Senior producer Susanna Hegner said about 100 or so viewers submit a daily online “rundown” from the NY1 site. Transit, education and political stories usually take the top spots. “Police brutality often ends up pretty high,” she said.
So viewers don’t want Britney Spears or Michael Jackson at the top of their nightly news program? “We were fearful, quite frankly, of what might happen,” Mr. Schiumo said, “and I’d be talking about Brad Pitt for the rest of my career.”
“Every single slate, we dangle what I call ‘the idiot carrot,'” or “some sort of tabloid-y, non-newsy,” topic, he explained. But viewers voting for The Call‘s stories are going online to a news site to rank news stories that they want to see. They’re probably news junkies and they want to hear about stories that affect them directly, he said.
“I suspect, if we went to Times Square, if we asked a bunch of people what they thought was important, we’d get a different result,” Mr. Schiumo added.
Ms. Hegner said viewers’ online influence can sometimes ripple across all of NY1. “When we get an overwhelming response to a story that might not necessarily be a lead story on NY1, you know, the other 23 hours, we will definitely let the other producers know, the other managers know,” she told The Observer. “Sometimes they’ll give it a little but more credence, maybe play it a little higher, add a little more resources to it.”
Mr. Schiumo said depending on viewer rankings for every show wouldn’t work. But, in a 24-hour news cycle, there’s room for a half-hour that is dictated by NY1 fans.
He has heard from viewers that their “guilty conscience” keeps them from ranking the fluffy stories too high. “When you see the 10 stories in front of you, you have a hard time ranking a SpongeBob SquarePants anniversary wax figure over the Sonia Sotomayor hearings,” he said. “Now, you might click on the SpongeBob story and read it and not read Sonia Sotomayor, but you have a hard time hitting the [rundown’s] submit button.”
“It’s almost like your news consciouness comes out,” he added. “It’s like I’ve got to put the war in Afghanistan above the Harry Potter movie release, even though I care more about Harry Potter … maybe.”