Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Little about Local TV News Formatting

Television news consultants have a big say in what TV viewers see on their local and network news 24/7.  Yet for as much as makes it into the public domain these days thanks to the Internet, social media and endless TV shows about, well, TV shows, the television news consulting business remains a mystery to most.

Judging from your local TV newscast, you can quickly see the role that consultants play in the presentation of the news.  Research has found that viewers like to see news as it’s happening, and the more dramatic the visuals the better.  That’s why most local newscasts will start with video of raging fires, car accidents, shootings or the aftermath of all of the above. 

This dynamic long ago coined the common newsroom term, “If it bleeds it leads.”

Next to this “breaking news,” consultants have found that viewers really care a lot about what the  weather will be like, and then there is the sports segment.  In a 30-minute newscast, once you remove time for commercial breaks, the available time to deliver news is roughly 16-18 minutes.  Of this, about 10 minutes may be dedicated to those lead stories I mentioned. The bulk of the rest is allocated to weather and sports. 

The material that usually serves as filler are national news stories that could be business, political, or the latest celebrity meltdown.  Rounding it all out are human interest stories, and increasingly, the latest viral YouTube video.

If a local newscast is slated to go longer than 30 minutes, this format tends to repeat itself, but there are opportunities for longer, localized human interest features.  If it’s a ratings period, your local television news operation’s investigative reporter may take center stage.

Whether the reporter is an investigative reporter, a “health reporter,” or a consumer advocacy reporter, the thinking is that to generate interest, the deepest wells to tap are a general distrust of government, politicians and local government spending.  That’s often the focus of those investigative reports. 

Fear is another mainstay television news ratings grabs.  How often do you see promotional announcements for stories that focus on the latest, and most common food items we eat that could give us cancer?  When television news programs showcase the latest threats to your safety or health, they’re trying to scare an audience into watching.

Of course, none of this would happen if it didn’t work. 

Some other items that influence certain television news decisions:

·         In Pittsburgh, you can’t go wrong with doing something about the Pittsburgh Steelers regardless of whether it’s during the season or the off-season.
·         Business stories are considered audience killers and usually only make the cut when layoffs or a high-profile scandal are involved.
·         It’s increasingly more common for local TV newscasts to feature complete stories that are in some way tied to the station’s prime-time programming line-up.  So if, for example, the local station is about to air the season finale of a reality show on losing weight, don’t be surprised if the station does a story or two about the health effects of obesity, not coincidentally timed to draw attention to the reality show.

These are just a few of the factors that shape television news, particularly the local newscasts.  While they are hardly a mystery, it’s important to know them, particularly if you are thinking about hosting a news conference announcing a new jobs training program.  I wouldn’t say it won’t get covered, but it might help if you could talk Justin Bieber into showing up for your event.

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