Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Heading For The Door

Can a $15 million dollar a year anchor help? How about new sets, new lighting, new hair and makeup, new features and commentary? Let's try some new producers, fantastic graphics and endearing publicity campaigns. Warm and fuzzy road trips peppered with pretentious town meetings can't miss! Kate listens and listens across America, but the message is not received. How far do audiences have to shrink before someone gets it? Will anything cure ratings decay?

The desperate dance never ends: How can we improve the ratings? How can we entice that illusive extra point or two in the Nielsens? You'd be amazed the levels of exasperation reached during these pursuits. Dozens of production people can lose sleep about this week's meaningless trivial aspect of a broadcast. A slight change in lighting, a new color scheme in electronic graphics, how much a news desk reflects its surroundings, a heated behind-the-scenes debate regarding hairstyle or makeup. None of these things are important!

Another worthless cure-all attempt, seen time and again, is the new feature. (No one has tried this before, I swear!) 22 minutes of nightly broadcast time flies by. Let's kill our precious time with commentary from 'cutting edge' authorities on what-not. Let's take a trip across America attempting to make our news relevant. Broadcast from a hotel balcony situated overlooking a war zone. Nothing's working? 'Let's hire a new Executive Producer. You know... the one who put Charlie and Diane together on GMA. Can't miss!' Stop! Stop! Stop this nonsense!

Take a lesson from the classic movie 'The Year of Living Dangerously.' A cub reporter, played by Mel Gibson, exclaims all sorts of generic dribble back to his editor. The editor wisely replies: (paraphrasing) 'When you are ready to tell me what makes this event different and exciting - then call me back. Tell us what you experience, not what I can report from here!' The CBS Evening News led with a story, one day this week, proclaiming an unbridled increase in lost luggage at airports. Would you watch this stuff?

No one will admit it, but news distribution is a lazy process. In essence, there are only three major sources of national news: The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post. You can rest assured that if The Times features revelations regarding a 'stay slim' gene or banning drug distribution to the world's poor, every nightly newscast will feature it tomorrow. Novel independent reporting is increasingly rare!

(By the way, forget about learning anything about international news unless it has some sort of American hook. '345 people died in a plane crash today in Africa. 3 were Americans.' If no Americans were aboard, the other 342 victims would never be covered!) Watch Canada's CTV or the BBC TV news on-line for a glimpse of what's going on in the rest of the world - and - excellent views of America from outside our self-created bubble looking in.

The Associated Press, arguably, is the most powerful source in news today. They provide standardized and homogenized accounts of news events that are accepted, without challenge, by thousands of newspapers and broadcast outlets daily. To public relations firms, coverage by The AP is the holy grail of success. Rest assured: If The AP picks up on the waterskiing squirrels in Florida, the entire nation will witness this nonsense within 48 hours.

Why does this happen? The industry has lost its sense of public service and is now driven by finance. Today's goal is to fill a newscast without investing in any independent reporting (spending money.) An arrogant attitude exists: The audience will eat whatever we prepare for them because there are so few options on the menu. News directors often forget that viewers can opt to tune out entirely!

Is this threat totally without merit? I don't think so. America's callous news distribution system 'jumped the shark' the night Bush and Gore fought for votes in The State of Florida. I was in the belly of the beast that night, working in one of the election data centers of a major network. The panic I witnessed was a disturbing product of a serious disease. It was quite a moment. America's viewers indisputably had caught the news system with its pants down...way down! All anyone could say was: 'Oh my God! What do we do now?'

The election results consortium had called the state of Florida for Gore. Everyone ran with the news trying to upstage the competition. The result estimates proved wrong. The news broadcasters felt shame. After brief apology, it was back to business as usual. Unfortunately, this dry rot continues to weaken network news every day. Fact checking has become as obsolete as the typewriter. Without these necessary checks and balances the networks will never earn the public's trust.

So, what is the answer? It certainly isn't million dollar anchors and sets! It's CONTENT. News broadcasts need to be intriguing, essential and habit-forming with novel, aggressive and accurate independent reporting. Show me diversity in perspective. Tell me what I don't know. Tell me why this event counts. What is it like to be there? How will it affect me? What will make my life better? How can I help my kids? What should I know that I haven't heard of yet? It's primal and basic. The only reason these avenues are not pursued with zeal is money. No one wants to invest in building an audience by offering great reporting. All we get is fast food news: here today and gone tomorrow. You really want ratings? Broadcast what no one else is willing to work for - and - make it count!

Newscasts depend on building teams of loyal viewers. Have you ever recruited a team of workers? Each hire is another hard-earned step forward. It takes great effort and time to build long-term strength and reputation. News reporting is no different. Knowing the right people to contact can make your day! If your reporting is thin and superficial your audience will leave you in search of more satisfying meat. Word of mouth is powerful! Create it with your reporting!

And...the content needs to be relevant to the old and the young (read under 55 years old.) The three existing newscasts will need to change their demographic focus in the next ten years because most of their current audiences will die of old age! Don't the Senokot and Depends ads give you a clue? Your target audience has to broaden now!

My prescription: Use the 6:30 pm half hour as a loss leader to promote your Internet-delivered content. Become the pivotal source of information available on an immediate basis. Embrace new technologies like RSS to deliver your news. Appeal to a broad spectrum of age groups, young adults through seniors and sort the information appropriately. Make your service easy to use and search.

Right now, news junkies are on life-support barely surviving with the half-hearted attempts of CNN or Google News. Network news' Internet sites are cumbersome and clunky. I don't want to put clips into a playlist to discover what I should be able to access with one click. The three major networks all have about 180 affiliate stations each and deep resources (if they can discover how to manage them.) Spend your $15 million dollars to fund top reporters and crews who chase and discover revelatory news instead of lazily following up an AP news lead automatically placed in your lap! Doors will open and, who knows, ratings might follow!

It would be a national tragedy if our free press disintegrates any further. So little true investigative reporting creates a poorly informed public - and - a public who can be steered by a single source of news. The current alleged leaders in the network news business need to address their obligations to the public. Strong reporting has often served as an essential balance of power between government, business and the general populace. Without a strong press our freedoms are endangered (and so are the network's ratings!) Let's see some real reporting instead of processed white bread sludge. A reminder from the banner of The Old Grey Lady: Deliver 'all the news that's fit to print' and entice your audience to want more. Otherwise, we are all heading for the door!


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