Don't Mess with the Press

How to Write, Produce and Report
               Quality Television News

by Tony Seton

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Fifty years ago, owning a television station was viewed as a license to print money. Not so today, where many stations are in crisis because the proliferation of satellite and cable systems has provided viewers with hundreds of choices; not to mention the advent of tapes and now DVDs. Margins have shrunk as the audience is split among more channels and a massive library of recorded programs. The only arena in which local stations don't face significant competition is local news, where in most markets only two or three other stations are competing for the same audience.

Television news was never an altruistic venture. Stations originally broadcast the news because it was required of them by the FCC to keep their license. A half-century after its inception, some stations are dropping television news altogether. One reason is because they can – the FCC no longer requires them to air news – but also, many stations have decided it's not worth the effort to compete with the other news operations. This is a dicey issue, because a news operation today, if it is successful, can produce well over half of a station's revenues.

In business terms, one can understand the decision of a station manager to cancel a newscast if it brings in less money than it costs to produce. But that station manager is on thin ice justifying that decision by saying that the community is served by other stations providing news. The fewer news organizations, the less competition, and that often means a decline in the scope and quality of the area news coverage. Usually there is enough local interest in television news for at least two stations to earn a big enough piece of the pie to make it worthwhile.

The business of television operates on the basis of the gross number of viewers. That's the way the sales staff sells the time. Maybe they've got 25,000 viewers for their early evening news compared to 21,000 for the second-rated station. Maybe there's a third station, which is drawing an audience of only 15,000 viewers.

But GRP – for gross ratings points – is not the whole story for the advertiser, the buyer of the commercial minutes you’re selling. If they're advertising a lube shop or fast food drive-thru, they may be fine just counting the total number of eyeballs that may catch their commercial during a newscast. In truth, they're probably better off at the quantity end of the viewer spectrum. But what if they're a Lexus dealer or a stock broker or they're marketing a graduate school? Then they need active minds behind those eyeballs, and that means they need to be drawing a higher-end audience.

So you may be the number three station, capturing only 60% of the number of viewers watching the number one station, but if you're attracting the educated, consumer-oriented, community-aware people with money, you may be in a position to charge significantly higher rates for a smaller but more valuable audience. This is especially true during weaker economic times, when the buying power of the less affluent diminishes and those with money tend to keep spending.

Happy Talk

Let's harken back to the olden days again for a moment. There was a time, back before mini-cams and satellites, when news was a serious business. Back in the 1960s, for instance, every newscast was anchored by a straight-laced white male who delivered the news in stentorian tones. But then a radically new format came on the scene; it featured talking between the anchors, and among the anchors and reporters. The classicists pejoratively termed it "Happy Talk" and it took off like a rocket.

News consultants sold the chit-chat style as more engaging – the viewer was family, or at least a friend – and it soon became the dominant format. But when everyone was using the same format to snag viewers from the competition, some stations went further to make their banter more enticing, specifically hiring anchor "talent" who would charm the audience; journalism credentials were secondary. Because it was easier to attract a larger audience with personalities, local news was soon less about news and more about entertainment.


Revolution in News

Thomas Jefferson said that our nation probably would need a revolution every twenty years. Well, for the last twenty years, television news has typically been defined by the chatty, viscerally-oriented newscasts that target emotion rather than intellect. Most stations are wallowing in this format. They cover news in the same way and promote their coverage and personnel in like fashion. It’s time for a revolution in television news.

Imagine what would happen in a market with the appearance of quality television news – intelligent reporting on significant issues presented in a comprehensive manner that demonstrated respect for the audience.

Consider how quickly an audience could develop for a newscast that was assembled and presented based on journalistic principles; it would look wildly innovative in most parts of the country. It would be startlingly different enough and would generate enough buzz to invite at least a look. Providing clear and concise information without hype and staged banter, such a newscast would offer measurably more content, from the number of stories to the substantive interviews to the scoops. It would be the news the newsmakers watch.

It probably wouldn't take long for the quality television news to draw a winning audience. Maybe not the most viewers, but certainly the ones who cared to be informed, and those are the folks with money. Even for the station manager who was just interested in the bottom line, quality television news would be a more viable approach.

That’s because quality television news is less expensive to produce. It requires fewer people and less facilities than the typical news operation. The work environment is simultaneously more focused and rewarding, which translates into people working better together and remaining at the station longer; both are critical factors in the corporate profit picture.

Don't Mess with the Press explains how to write, produce and report quality television news, as well as how to manage and promote it. It might hastily be added that what you can learn from this book will benefit everyone considering television news as a profession, no matter what kind of news operation they might choose to join, since the better they know how to perform the essentials of news-gathering, production and presentation, the better equipped they will be in any news operation to handle whatever is thrown their way.



©2003-2005  Tony Seton