Sunday, January 19, 2014

Local TV News's Snow Job

For years, print media, and both network and cable television news have faced a seemingly never-ending competitive onslaught from the Internet as their readerships and viewerships have suffered steady declines.  Yet for the most part, local TV news and neighborhood newspapers have held their own comparatively speaking. The reason is simple.  The more local the news the fewer the competitors.

That has changed with the emergence of social media and smart phones, and the explosion of apps for those smart phones.  Because people can get information from person to person, information service to phone at the most localized and customized of levels, now local TV news it facing a kind of competition it hadn’t seen before.

It may be primarily for this reason, you’re starting to see the response on your local TV station and its related Internet and social media extensions.

It’s costly to run a local TV news operation, and what it takes to maintain its staff and operations is eyeballs, or in more conventional terms ratings.
When the Pew Research Journalism Project issued its State of the News Media 2013 report last year, it spent a respectable chunk of that report on the state of local news.  According to the report, local network TV affiliates lost over six percent of their audience in the most important time periods of the day – early morning, evening and late night.

As a result, the report indicated that story lengths have shortened, there is less in-depth journalism produced, yet there is an increase in the amount of time devoted to traffic, weather and sports.

“Coverage of politics and government, meanwhile, was down by more than 50 percent,” the report stated.

In fact, sports, weather and traffic now fill about 40 percent of local news broadcast time.

Of those, according to some research Pew did in 2011, approximately 58 percent of adults said weather is the primary reason they watch.  Pew Research found that after looking at 48 newscasts in 2012 and 2013, 42 percent “led with a weather report or story.” 

Why the weather? 

It’s universal. The weather affects every viewer regardless of demographic.  It’s immediate and always changing.  If you have plans, you most likely want to check the weather to see what to wear, to see if you have to alter your plans, or at least change your transportation arrangements or route.  Somehow, almost instinctively, you will want to find out the weather at least once during the day. So where will you turn to get that information? 

Local TV news operations own three places you might turn – their Web sites; their social media pages; or their broadcasts.  And most are tightly integrated across channels.

Then there are the bells and whistles of technology.  No doubt, your local TV news has a “storm center,” or “severe weather hub,” or something to that effect.  They use a data collection operation to get you all sorts of information you really don’t care about, but the point is to show you the sophistication behind their weather forecasts.  They want you to see how complex weather forecasting can be, and in so doing give themselves credibility.  They want to be your first choice when the weather gets cold or wet, or hot and dry. 

Live weather reports may give you the same information you’d get if you looked out your own window, but that doesn’t matter. Weather, to some extent, is show biz.  You have to see on your big screen those snowflakes falling on that frigid weather reporter. 

Then they take you inside and show you more digital graphics than you’d find on an Xbox.  Radar, satellite, temperature grids and maps.  And more maps.  And a weather person standing in front of those digitally produced maps to cause you just enough panic to keep watching, but just enough calming to reassure you that they have your weather under control. It’s a delicate balance. 

Then there is the thing local TV news has done better than any to hook you.  I mentioned that social media has emerged as competition for local news, and that’s true. So rather than fight progress, as newspaper dailies did for the longest time, local TV news stations have embraced it.  Or more to the point, they are using social media to further hook you into watching. 

Here’s how it works when it comes to weather.  You look outside and take a photo of the snow falling on your deck.  You’re watching the news, and the weather person asks you to “tweet us,” or “send in those pictures.”  So you Tweet, email or Facebook that shot right on their site.  Next thing you know, your snow-covered deck is on the evening news, if for less than a second.  You call your family and tell them about it.  Maybe it will be on again.  You tell your uncle Joe to “watch Channel 7.”  And the cycle continues.  If you don’t take a photo, you can just tweet your thoughts, and just maybe the station will retweet or even broadcast those.  In social media terminology, you are now engaged.
So what happens when the weather is nice?  Well that can always change, and that’s the beauty of the weather forecast in local news. Weather is good for ratings.

Here is a typical weather-outside standup with non-typical ending:

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