Build Your TV News Ratings With Topical Promotion

A photo of a hand on a TV remote control with the news on in the background.

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Topical news promotion is one of the six key forms of media advertising. Yet when it comes to using topical promotion to drive an audience toward watching a TV newscast, it's a tool that's often squandered. By using topical promotion effectively, you can see results for your newscast in the Nielsen ratings.

The Basics of Topical Promotion

Topical promotion for a newscast is simple. You highlight the stories you think are the most attention-grabbing in order to send viewers to that evening's newscast. Too often, topical promotion is written as an afterthought.

This is one example of poorly-written topical promotion: "Tonight on Action News 4, the city council meets to discuss the issues. We'll have a full report. Also, we'll explain changes in federal law that will affect how taxpayers should file their income taxes. Sonny Snow has weather and Jock Champion the sports. That's tonight on Action News 4."

There are several reasons this is bad topical promotion. First, the promo doesn't state what's in it for the viewer to watch. Will they save money, be smarter, better looking? All the promo did was list a couple of stories and state that the weatherman will have weather and the sports guy will have sports.

Here's one way to make it better: "Tonight at 11 on Action News 4, the city council wants to change the way your garbage is collected. Will your trash pile up if you only get service once a week? Also, don't miss income tax filing tips. The law is now different in the way you should file. Plus, will the weekend be a washout? Sonny Snow will show you. And catch a grand-slam home run from Jock Champion. Only on Action News 4 at 11."

This second example highlights the viewer benefits while dropping meaningless phrases like "we'll have a full report." Because topical promotion runs 0:10 to 0:30 on air, every word must count. The second example requires the promo writer to know details about the story.

That extra effort will make the topical promotion cut through the clutter of a commercial break to grab viewers and send them to the newscast. Also, notice the reference to "you" in the second example versus the "we'll" in the first. Writing "you" is more direct.

Why Topical Promotion Is Important

Topical promotion isn't Shakespeare. That's the role of image promotion. But it provides short bursts of one-night-only advertising that can make a difference in the ratings, especially for stations that are not market leaders.

That's because a market-leading station already has a built-in core of viewers who will tune in, regardless of content. But that core viewer might be convinced to switch to the #2 or #3 rated station if there's a compelling reason to do so.

The reason won't be because of a sudden shift in allegiance to a different news team. It will simply be because he was lured into wanting to watch a story that interests him.

True, that great story will air tonight at 11:00 p.m. and then be history. But you got one viewer to sample your news tonight, and tomorrow night, you'll create another great topical promotion to entice someone else. Do it enough times and you've started a trend that will show up in the ratings.

What to Tease

A routine city council meeting that every TV station covered might be your lead story, but it shouldn't automatically earn a spot in that evening's topical promotion. If it's on every station, then a viewer doesn't have a good reason to watch your station's coverage. If it's a routine meeting, then the story isn't special enough to make it a must-see.

Look for the stories with the most viewer benefit. That could be a story on a new way to treat cancer or a better way to drive into downtown tomorrow morning. Stories that help people are tailor-made for topical promotion. Next, look for a compelling video. Some producers call it "eye candy." A raging wildfire, interstate pileup or baby otters are simply good visuals that viewers will remember after the promo is over.

Also, consider that evening's audience demographics. If your topical promotion is running during a football game or during the Tony Awards, that should be reflected in the stories you choose and how you write the script. Male and female viewers respond differently to what you say and what you show.

Finally, remember to state the time and place -- a lot. "Tonight" or "Tonight at 11" isn't enough. Try to say "Tonight at 11 on Action News 4" two to three times in your promo. It sounds like overkill, but you are competing with everything else in a viewer's living room in order to make the sale.

Topical promotion isn't taught in a college journalism class. A professor would say that's because it's not journalism at all, but advertising. While that's true, any news producer and other news writers can easily boost their ratings and their careers by mastering the simple steps in selling a TV newscast.