Tuning in: viewers get air time; the viewers really appreciate knowing that someone is listening to their feedback. Once you broadcast their responses, they write more. (Symposium).
With apologies to David Letterman, we broadcasters get our share of mail. Unlike our print counterparts, however, we just bundle them up, stick them in the file cabinet marked "Public File" and forget about them until the FCC renews our licenses. Then we throw them out and start over.
Or so some people think.
Actually, like our newspaper friends, we spend considerable time and effort trying to recognize and respond to viewer mail, and calls, and e-mail and faxes, and to air as many of those replies as we can.
At WISC-TV we call the segment "Viewer Replies!' Cablevision in New York calls it "Your Turn!' KSL-TV in Salt Lake City offers "Another Viewpoint." And WXYZ-TV in Detroit presents "Viewer Mail." In all cases, the process consists of devoting a regularly scheduled editorial slot to reading excerpts from replies to our editorials.
How often these segments air varies. Remember, unlike newspapers, replies do not run m addition to the nightly editorial; they run instead of the nightly editorial. Sometimes it's hard to relinquish that time. But by and large, broadcasters acknowledge the obvious value in encouraging and supporting viewer feedback.
"People love it," say Chuck Stokes, editorial and public affairs director for WXYZ-TV in Detroit. "They don't care if it isn't the whole letter. One line and a name is enough. [Feedback] encourages more feed-back because people know their letter doesn't go in a box somewhere."
Peter Kohler, editorial director at Long Island's Cablevision agrees. "Once you do it, and people know you do it, they write more.
While all editorial directors interviewed read replies on the air, with the comments on the screen so they can be read as well has listened to, Kohler makes a concerted effort to include tapes of phone responses as well. He sites a recent editorial on a controversial immigration issue that resulted in an onslaught of mail and calls.
"It was like talk radio," says Kohler. People were calling in to agree with the taped call-in comments that were critical of Kohler's editorial.
Cablevision's Connecticut outlet is now experimenting with sending a videographer to tape viewers delivering their replies to station editorials, adding a new dimension to viewer replies.
Most stations will, under certain circumstances, agree to let a viewer come to the station to tape a response, although KSL dropped the practice after 25 years when it went from airing five editorials a week to three.
KSL editorial director Duane Cardall said the change in policy allows for more replies to be read in the "Another Viewpoint" segment.
Cardali, like most others, airs excerpts of letters, but then offers the responses m their entirety on the station's Web site.
Web is the great equalizer
Here again, the Web is the great equalizer of print and broadcast opinion functions, allowing letters to the editor to run alongside the copy of the day's editorial.
It all falls short of a true op-ed page. But WXYZ's Stokes gets close. The Detroit station will occasionally solicit a "Community Cornment," inviting someone in the community to come in and present an opinion that WXYZ may, or may not, have editorialized on. Stokes says this is most likely to occur when a hot referendum topic is on the ballot.
The station might run a "Community Comment" first, then weigh in with the station opinion on a following night.
So yes, broadcasters do take mail seriously. We have a responsibility to our viewers to offer them a chance to respond to our work and to share that response with the broader audience in the hope of spurring a more vigorous discussion of important civic issues. And it just makes sense.
Viewers will want to watch the station that takes seriously their views and where they can witness those views being aired.
NCEW member Neil Heinen is editorial director of WISC-TV in Madison. He is chair of the Futures Committee and associate editor of The Masthead. His e-mail address is email@example.com