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
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.
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.