Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Five Commandments of Local Television News

I know your first question. “Why not ten commandments?” That’s been taken, and since we’re talking TV, there’s no time for ten, so we’ll have to go with five commandments.

After years of witnessing the evolution local television news and pitching substantive story ideas at times only to lose out to stories about 20-pound cats and talking Christmas trees, I feel compelled to list the unsaid rules of local TV news story selection. So, here goes – The Five Commandments of Local TV News:

One - Begin with Sports and Weather teasers. Feature Sports and Weather. And end with Sports and Weather.
Two - Always lead the newscast with a fire, a car accident or a crime story.
Three - Always find someone who’s long on opinion but short on information for a man-on-the-street interview to explain macroeconomic concepts like foreign trade deficits. (“They took our jobs!”)
Four - Lay a guilt trip on your audience with at least one preachy story about what people shouldn’t eat, or what they're not doing to save the planet. (“Remember, it’s good for you, and it’s good for the environment.”)
Five - Scare your audience into watching. Food recalls are great. Light snow or rain is even better if you can work the words “storm watch” into the teaser.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Katie Couric and the Future of the "Evening News"

In the industry trade magazines, all the talk is about Katie Couric stepping down from her anchor spot at “CBS Evening News.” To be sure, within the industry, it is a major position because it’s the same desk where Walter Cronkite told the world of Moon landings and the John F. Kennedy assassination. But times have changed.

The country no longer sits in living rooms at 6:30 or 7 p.m. each night to get the news. Cable news, satellite news and the Internet have made it possible to get up to the minute information from anywhere in the world no matter where we are. In effect, the Walter Conkites of days gone by have been replaced by a smart phone.

Against such a major shift in information consumption, Ms. Couric took the helm of “CBS Evening News” in 2006 and was never able to build enough market share among a decreasing pool of viewers to even take first place among network news. At last check, her newscast was a distant third in the three-horse race with about 6.5 million viewers, the smallest number ever recorded for the broadcast’s audience since Nielsen tracked such numbers in 1992.

What’s been interesting for me is to watch how local news operations have responded to the same dynamics. Local news stations emphasize breaking news and place a lot more attention on fresh video, weather, sports and neighborhoods. As a result, they’ve maintained somewhat healthy viewership simply by being current, extremely local and thus relevant. Just don’t count on your local news to keep you current on world affairs and business news.

On the other hand, Couric’s news operation has tried to stay true to the 1960s vintage Walter Conkite model of newscasting – a 30-minute report, once commercial breaks have been removed, amounts to about 20 minutes of news reporting. “CBS Evening News” has opted to spend more time on the world-event-of-the-day, whether it be a comprehensive report from a war-torn country, or analysis of a major bill before congress.

The CBS operation usually picks another major social issue on which to focus a second comprehensive feature, such as the state of public schools or the lack of affordable housing in some cities.

What this means is that once commercials and the two feature stories are removed, the “CBS Evening News” has allotted roughly ten minutes to report nearly all of the news of the world. And Ms. Couric does so with all of the energy of a driver's license center worker who missed her coffee break.

I think CBS has a tremendous opportunity to make its news operation more relevant going forward, but to do so, it would have to start by thinking beyond the boundaries of simply, “the evening news.”