Open Mic

November 2009

Adam Lambert: Network Roller-Coaster Ride

Hillary Atkin Posted November 25, 2009 at 7:07 AM

Just as with Jon and Kate, and before them, Octomom, it’s hard to avoid the Adam Lambert spectacle.

After admittedly missing the entire “American Idol” season in which he took second place–and thus never having seen him perform–it was difficult to dodge all the publicity about Lambert, especially his much-hyped performance at the Sunday night’s American Music Awards on ABC to promote his freshly minted album, “For Your Entertainment.”

And that’s exactly what I was hoping for—to be entertained. Maybe, even, to fall in love with the song, as what happened when Jay-Z and Alicia Keys performed “Empire State of Mind” at the VMAs and then again, more polished this time, at the AMAs.

All roads at the AMAs, which was stacked with headlining performances from Lady Gaga, Eminem and 50 Cent, Green Day, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and Whitney Houston, led to Lambert, and the capper performance of the night. But, wait. This song didn’t sing.

Forget about the S&M and fetish-y elements–it just wasn’t entertaining, especially after what came before. Lady Gaga’s burning piano, anyone? And here on the West Coast, the already infamous man-on-man kiss was cut, as well as the face in his crotch bit. Or maybe I looked away and somehow missed that. But I couldn’t help but thinking: if this was Madonna in her heyday, or even these days, none of this would be any big deal. It could have been any one of a number of female performers pushing the envelope on stage. A bit controversial, yes. But ban-worthy?

So I felt bad for Lambert when ABC suddenly decided to delete him and his act from “Good Morning America.” A spokesperson for the network said something to the effect of it was just too early in the morning for his brand of performance. And that they’d gotten 1,500 complaints about his AMA act. Five minutes later, sensing a great PR opportunity as well as a timely ratings grab, CBS picked him up for its perennially third-place morning show.

Despite the fact that I’ll be purposely skipping his performance today on “The Early Show,” I’m fully supporting Lambert -- who will be David Letterman's musical guest tonight -- against the discriminatory, hypocritical network brass that used him one night, then axed him 36 hours later. And I hope his new album is a chart-topper, even though I won’t be among the buyers.

For Many Years It Was Thought That an Oprah 'Halo Effect' Delivered a Significant Number of Viewers to ABC's 'World News.' If That's Still True at All, What Happens When She Ends Her Current Show?

Chuck Ross Posted November 24, 2009 at 6:20 AM

Tags: halo effect, Oprah, Oprah Effect, World News

A few years ago—OK, more than a few—Tom Brokaw and his executive producer, Steve Friedman, had me up in their “Nightly News” offices to share with me an extraordinary memo that had been prepared by Larry McGill, NBC’s manager, news and audience research for the president of NBC News, Michael Gartner.

The year was 1992, and the research McGill had done was on something he dubbed the "Oprah Effect"—that is, the effect of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on the ratings of the evening national newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC.

Of course, except in a few markets, “Oprah” was NOT the lead-in to the national news. As it still is, "Oprah" is  primarly the lead-in to a station’s local newscast. The national newscasts are on AFTER the local newscasts.

With Winfrey’s announcement that she is leaving her syndicated show in September, 2011, I decided to ask what ABC currently thought of the Oprah Effect. The answer startled me, and I think it will surprise you as well.

First, I was able to dig up the original piece I wrote when I was reporting for “Inside Media.” Here is that piece, which appeared in the April 15, 1992 issue:

Quick: What woman is singlehandedly responsible for ABC’s “World News Tonight’s” No. 1 ranking in the ratings, and “NBC Nightly News’” third place showing?

Here’s a hint: She’s in Chicago.

The answer is Oprah Winfrey. “The Oprah effect, more than anything else, appears to be responsible for the strong showing of ‘ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings,’ according to a March 20 internal NBC memo sent by Larry McGill, manager, news and audience research, to NBC news president Michael Gartner.

What McGill is writing about is the large audience “The Oprah Winfrey Show” delivers to the local newscasts that follow her show, and the carry-over of that audience to the half-hour network newscasts that follow the local news.

The memo states that each household watching Oprah equals one household for the network newscast: some 5.7 million homes every weeknight. That’s bad news for CBS and worse news for NBC, because in the top 25 TV markets, Oprah is on 14 ABC affiliates (including the owned and operated station), seven CBS stations and only three NBC outlets.

“It is sobering to realize,” McGill concludes in the memo, “that if NBC had Oprah in just New York and Philadelphia, and could thereby swap Nightly's lead-in with "World News Tonight's' lead-in, 'Nightly News' would be tied with "World News Tonight' in the ratings."

The Oprah effect has dollar and cents consequences. The difference in annual gross ad billings between the ABC and NBC nightly newscasts is about $15 million, sources estimate. Season-to-date, “World News Tonght” has delivered a 5.6 Nielsen rating in women 25-54, and 4.8 in men 25-54.

Comparatively, NBC’s news checks in with a 4.9 in the women demo, and a 4.2 in the men category.

Jennings pulls a 21 share of the total audience; Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather control 18% each.

The Oprah effect, combined with the fact that about 60% of the stations that have Oprah also have the popular “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” to lead out of the network newscasts, is a double –whammy that gnaws at Gartner, Brokaw and Steve Friedman, Brokaw’s executive producer.

“What it does is make you shoot yourself in the head and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ or “What are we going to do about this?’ says Friedman.#

The remainder of the article was about what NBC was planning to do about it, such as pump the news a lot during the Olympics.

Three years later, when there were a lot of stations switching affiliations, I checked in again to examine the Oprah Effect. After the dust settled it appeared that the Oprah Effect on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC was still true and that all the affiliation changes were basically a wash.

So here we are 17 years after I wrote the original article on the Oprah Effect. Now, NBC is in first place, ABC is in second place, and CBS is in third place.

And the season-to-date ratings are NBC, a 2.1 in adults 25-54; ABC a 1.8 in adults 25-54, and CBS a 1.4 in adults 25-54.

One of the big questions with Oprah’s departure in 2011 is this: If any part of the Oprah Effect is still working, will that mean ABC’s “World News” could expect a hit when her show goes off the air?

Jon Banner, the executive producer of “World News,” does not think so. I spoke to Banner last week, before I had dug up my old article, but I was able to give him on outline of the old NBC Oprah Effect memo.

Banner had heard the theory before. “I think the idea that Oprah had some big effect on the evening news audience an hour and a half after she went off the air is one of the biggest myths in television.”

He elaborated: “I think there is no one as big a star as Oprah, and I think she’s an institution and has come to come to define the power and value of broadcast television. So I think we’re all going to be very sad to see her go.

“But her departure says more about the current state of media and broadcast television perhaps than whether or not people are going to stay through an hour and a half local news to watch an evening news program. She’s only on in the afternoon in our markets in 47% of the country. And I think a lead-in to a lead-in is always very difficult to figure out the effect of the audience. And her audience make-up is quite different than ours. During the hour and a half some people come to the TV, some go away. So the audience mix certainly changes over that hour and a half.”

Here was Banner’s final thoughts on the matter: “ So I think [the Oprah Effect] was a myth then and continues to be pushed by various people. We did some real hard research on this to try to determine if this was the case, because we’d like to know.”

But, he said, his research came up empty.

I disagree. My gut tells me that McGill was right 17 years ago, and that the Oprah Effect on the national newscasts was real. There really was a funnel effect back then.

The question is how much of that remains. I think some of it does. How much? We’ll find out in September, 2011.#

News of a TV Legend Ending Show Raises Real Issues About Journalism and Why It's So Important (No, I'm Not Talking About Oprah)

Chuck Ross Posted November 22, 2009 at 1:27 PM

Tags: Billk Moyers, journalism, journalism matters, retiring

If you're at all interested in why journalism matters in a free society---and you should be--I want to recommend a book to you.

The book is "Moyers on Democracy" by Bill Moyers.

Perhaps the best description I've ever heard of Moyers was by the late Studs Terkel, himself a first-class chronicler of all things Americana: "Bill Moyers has been my North Star, in his eloquence, his quiet passion and courage, and in the way he presents me and millions of others with the ideals of our nation, from our past to our present to our uncertain future. Always he offers the gifts of thoughtfulness and of hope."

Moyers has done thousands of hours of TV programming, many of them focusing on various aspects of the humaniites, such as his famous interviews wtih Joseph Campbell about the Power of Mythology that first ran on Moyers' home for many years, PBS.

Moyers announced on Friday, Nov. 20th, that he'll be retiring from regularly weekly reporting on TV come April of 2010. Noting that he's 75-years-old, he says it's time. And no one can begrudge him his decision.  

So it's a good time for us to note that nothing Moyers has done has been more important than his work as a journalist investigating the doings of govenment.

In 2007, when Moyers was criticized for an edition of his "Bill Moyers Journal" that some did not think had paid attention to both sides of an issue discussed on the program, Moyers responded, "The journalist's job is not to achieve some mythical state of equilibrium between two opposing opinions out of some misshapen respect —sometimes, alas, reverence—for the prevailing consensus among the powers-that-be. The journalist's job is to seek out and offer the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story."

Hear. Hear.

Journalism matters is also the name of a speech Moyers delivered at a conference about education during the summer of 2007. It's one of the speehes reprinted in "Moyers on Democracy."

In the speech, Moyers said, "The job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated as trying to hide it in the first place. One of my mentors told me that 'news is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.' " 

Moyers, who once worked as press secretary for fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson when Johnson was President of the United States, has long been target of the right. 

And he's holds no quarter in firing back when he thinks the right is wrong.

Again, from his speech about journalism mattering:

"Nowadays journalists who try to dig up what's hidden still bring down on themselves the opprobrium of government and corporations. But they must also face the wrath of right-wing media whose worldview is to see a liberal lurking behind every fact. Journalism is under withering  fire these days from idealogues--those true believers who have closed their minds to all contrary evidence and hung a sign on the door with the words: DO NOT DISTURB. Any journalist whose reportinig dares to challenge the party line becomes a candidate for Guantanamo. Rush Limbaugh, notably, railed against journalists for their reporting on the torture at Abu Ghraib, which he dismissed as a little sport for soldiers under stress. He told his audience: "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation...You ever heard of people [who] need to blow off some steam?" The Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the right-wing echo chamber from which many millions of Americans now get their news. So I wasn't surprised to read that nationwide survey by the Chicago Tribune in which half of the respondents said there should have been some kind of press restraint on reporting about the prison abuse and just as many said they 'would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, especially if it is found unpatriotic.' "

Moyers then paused and said, "Imagine: free speech as sedition."

Then he looked out at the educators and demanded: "Tell your students. Silence is sedition."# 

ABC News Interview of Janet Jackson Enough to Make You Cringe

Hillary Atkin Posted November 20, 2009 at 12:02 PM

It was Janet Jackson’s turn to shine, and the pop megastar obviously put a lot of thought into who she would spill to in her first televised interview since the tragic death of her brother Michael nearly five months ago.

That’s why it was such a jarring experience to watch her Wednesday night on ABC’s “In the Spotlight with Robin Roberts.” Ms. Jackson was classy, revealing, charming, honest — even as Roberts lobbed cringe-worthy questions like, “What’s your favorite body part?” and more probing ones on her current romantic status.

The timing of the big-time get was no accident. Jackson’s new album was released the day before, she’s kicking off the American Music Awards Sunday night on ABC, and a “sneak peek” at her new video closed out the show.

The program offered viewers a tantalizing view of Jackson’s Malibu home, and was non-linear at best, flying around from topics like Jackson’s early days as a television actress in shows like “Good Times” to her secret marriage to Rene Elizondo to whether she’d ever met Dr. Conrad Murray. Segments were punctuated by a smarmy announcer — better suited to a show like “True Hollywood Stories” reading inane copy like “Next: losing her brother, but finding herself.”

After showing Roberts a display of family photographs -- including one of Michael and his children shortly before he died -- Jackson admitted almost off the top that she often smiles as a protective mechanism. And despite the serious nature of most of the interview, she was true to her word, flashing a mesmerizing grin throughout the show.

Jackson herself — dressed in a conservative cream-colored dress and glittering geometric gold earrings, was riveting, mainly because she’s purposefully and wisely kept herself scarce. Yet there was little new information. She was in New York when she got the fateful call about Michael collapsing. She didn't leave town right away, not knowing how serious it was. He used to call her "Dunk." She called him Mike.

But just when things were starting to get insightful, as when she revealed that her father ordered her not to call him Daddy when she was a very young girl, that he forced her to drop acting for singing or that she didn't celebrate a birthday until she was 23 years old, Roberts’ (or the editor’s) apparent ADD would kick in and the subject would be changed.

Maybe this wasn't really an ABC News production, as it was long on assumptions and short on facts — and there was heavy emphasis on Jackson’s weight issues that she seems to have struggled with since childhood, yet no discussion of how she’s managed to always get back in center-stage shape.

 Roberts inquired about her “booty,” and Jackson revealed that former long-time record producer boyfriend Jermaine Dupri made her feel very comfortable in her own skin, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions after Roberts elicited they were actually no longer together — even after Jackson admitted that she adored him and “loved him to death.”

There was a mention made of Jackson’s quickie first marriage at age 18 to singer James DeBarge in order to escape her family and that it ended because of his drug abuse, which was rather defamatorily equated with Michael’s — without any other information.

Quick sound bites, but no details, on how the family tried to stage interventions with Michael increased the amorphous haze around that part of Jackson’s legacy, in contrast to his on-point performances in “This Is It,” which his sister said is too painful for her to see.

MJ fans were no doubt disappointed not to hear more substantive discussion about Janet’s relationship with her older brother — although there were many adorable old photos and video clips of the two together. Still, her grief was palpable, as was her anger at Murray and her reaction to the fact that her brother died from an overdose of Propofol. “Serious, heavy. None of us knew,” she said of his usage of the intravenous hospital anesthetic.

Take her grief out of the equation and despite her strict upbringing, the rocky love life, the struggles with body image, the interview proved there’s no reason to pity Janet Jackson. To paraphrase a notorious Joe Jackson comment about Michael, she’s smiling all the way to the bank.

What is Oprah--and the ABC O&Os That Carry Her Show--Going to Do?

Chuck Ross Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:48 AM

Tags: Oprah, Oprah Winfrey, the Oprah WInfrey Show, Winfrey

[NOTE: I wrote this piece on 11/6, speculating about what Oprah might do. Last night she made her much anticipated announcement that she'll be leaving her current show in Sept. 2011. Over the weekend, after hearing what Oprah has to say about her future on her show today (Friday, Nov. 20th), I will write another blog entry about the situation. Please check back for that on Monday morning.]

It’s quickly become Hollywood’s favorite parlor game and please, you’re invited to play. It’s all about Oprah.

Furthermore, it’s all about the ABC owned-and-operated TV stations in places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago that air her show and have made millions and millions off of it over the years. Of course they’ve paid millions as well, enriching the coffers of King World and then CBS Television Distribution and helping to make Oprah one of the richest people in the world.

What do YOU think she’s gonna do? What do you think she SHOULD do?

And what are those ABC stations going to do?

We’ve spoken to lots of folks in recent weeks and here are some interesting scenarios….

First, let’s assume that she will indeed not renew with CBS Television Distribution. Yes, she might renew with them, but we doubt it, and if she does we’d have nothing to talk about for the rest of this blog. Furthermore, clearly since the death of Roger King, Oprah’s not been as warm and cuddly with the company as she had been previously.

And few doubt that if Roger had not died that Oprah would have gone with Sony to launch the Dr. Oz show. So if Oprah is warm and cuddly with any syndicator right now, it’s with Steve Mosko and his Sony team.

Thus if Oprah is going to continue with any syndicator, a lot of the smart money is on Sony. The only way she continues with CBS would be through the charms and smarts of CBS topper Les Moonves, which are considerable. No one has ever gotten anywhere in the TV world in Hollywood by underestimating Moonves. Remember, he and his team were able to keep Letterman when most Hollywood wags thought for sure that Letterman would move to ABC.

Nikki Finke broke the story this week that Oprah will not renew with CBS and will move her talk shop to OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network she is starting with Discovery Communications.

In that report she says David Zaslav, who runs Discovery, gave Oprah an ultimatum. Now, we know David and I’m sure he’s not foolish enough to give Oprah ultimatums. Yes, clearly he must be somewhat frustrated about the delay of the launch of OWN, so let’s say it’s likely they’ve had earnest discussions.

Does Oprah just move her show lock, stock and barrel over to OWN? That sounds doubtful to us. If she’s done with it in its present form, she’s probably done with it. If not, we still see at least some syndication component. If she does a program for OWN, look for it to be somewhat different than the syndicated show she's been doing for the past two and a half decades.

Now, what do the ABC stations do? On the first-run syndication front, Disney-ABC has not been very active of late in trying to launch any talk shows.

Interestingly, as a number of executives have mentioned to us, ABC has “The View.” What show would be better as a late afternoon lead-in to the local news on those ABC stations? We like that scenario a lot.

Or perhaps Oprah makes some deal, with her partner Sony, to eventually move Dr. Oz, which Oprah’s Harpo Productions has a stake of, into those ABC station time slots.

Of course other syndicators are also salivating at the prospect of those slots opening up. CBS would certainly love them for their new Nancy Grace show. Or that other queen of daytime, Judge Judy. Debmar-Mercury has Wendy Williams and other ideas as well, we’re sure.

And if Oprah does leave the syndicated airwaves, the ascension of Ellen Degeneres as syndication’s premier talk queen is almost assured. You just know Warner Bros. would love those ABC slots as well.

Well that’s some of what we hear and what we think. Let us know what YOU think is going to happen.#

With Leno Off ‘Tonight,’ is There a New King of Late Night?

Aaron Barnhart Posted November 3, 2009 at 4:09 AM

When Americans are looking to soothe their frazzled nerves after a long day, late-night TV shows have always been happy to oblige. But these days, the world of late night is as topsy-turvy as the real world we’re trying to tune out.

Just one year ago, Jay Leno was cruising along as the undisputed king of late night. Five million faithful watched the “Tonight” show host, as reliable as his restored Model T, night after night delivering A-list guests, John McCain jokes and wacky headlines.

A million viewers behind him was the urbane David Letterman, still considered the best in show by many, and everyone else followed in the wake of these two old pros. Conan O’Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel all had their multitudes, but the pecking order in late night was clear and it was unalterable.

Then it all came undone. Leno left NBC’s “Tonight” to prepare for his new 9 p.m. show. Conan moved to L.A. to take his place and promptly lost half of Leno’s audience. Back in New York, Jimmy Fallon took over Conan’s spot and lost a third of his audience.

That cleared the path for Letterman to reclaim the top spot in the ratings after surrendering his crown to Leno 14 years ago.

But how long will Dave be around to enjoy it? He has gotten himself into an unflattering, highly publicized romantic drama that might cost him support among the 58 percent of his audience that is female. And now we learn, courtesy of Newsday, that the “Late Show” host has yet to sign an extension to his CBS contract, which runs through 2010.

It no longer seems implausible that Dave might actually hang it up, settle down with his wife and raise their child out of the limelight. That would make Ferguson the most likely candidate to take over “Late Show” just about a year from now, not bad for a guy who until recently wasn’t even a U.S. citizen. (His memoir, “American on Purpose,” debuted recently at No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list.)

The most stable part of late night has been the lowlands, where Kimmel, Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose and Chelsea Handler (look, a woman!) continue to draw smaller but still lucrative audiences.

Hoping to join their ranks are Wanda Sykes, whose weekly show airs at 10 p.m. Saturdays on Fox starting Nov. 7, and George Lopez, whose “Lopez Tonight” launches at 10 p.m. Nov. 9 and will air weeknights on TBS.

Indeed, the more you look at the growing menu of late-night options, the more clear it becomes that there are no more kings in late night. There are only senators, each with a well-heeled constituency.

That said, there always seems to be a sentimental desire among many TV critics to declare Letterman the leader again. He has by far the most viewers, averaging about 4.7 million a night, or nearly twice O’Brien’s audience. However, as far as advertisers are concerned — and they are the ones who actually determine a show’s success — Conan is king.

Why? Because even with half the audience, he still outdraws Dave among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Advertisers pay dearly to reach those viewers.

Letterman, of all people, can appreciate this. In the 1980s NBC discovered that beer companies and movie studios preferred to advertise on his “Late Night” show, which was watched by college kids, instead of “The Tonight Show,” which was watched by their parents.

As for Leno, he’s still hosting a late-night show, no matter what NBC calls it. And he’s still more popular than Letterman, though with “The Jay Leno Show” airing five nights a week in prime time, it had better be.

The audience that really counts is made up of 200 local NBC station managers who nervously agreed to the network’s scheme to blow out the 10 o’clock hour (ET/PT) for a comedy program.

So far, according to Craig Allison of Kansas City’s KSHB, Leno is doing OK. Some nights the ratings have been disappointing, he says, but other nights Leno is doing much better than whatever NBC had in that time period a year ago. And Allison appreciates having a prime spot in the show to promote the station’s 10 p.m. newscast.

He does have one criticism. “The two chairs aren’t working for me,” Allison says, referring to the deskless area where Leno conducts his interviews. “They look uncomfortable. It was an immediate thing for me. I’m just used to a desk.”
________________________________________
■ OVERALL
Best show: “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” on CBS. He hasn’t learned to talk in an Indiana accent, but that’s about the only thing the Scotsman has yet to accomplish since emerging as the dark-horse candidate for Craig Kilborn’s job five years ago. Versatile, literate, spontaneous, a man who has seen the world, Ferguson is a latter-day Jack Paar, but built for the long haul. He has taken “Late Late Show” where it has never been — first place — so if you still think Jon Stewart is the front-runner for David Letterman’s job, you don’t know Scot.

Worst show: “Last Call With Carson Daly.” NBC has been screwing around with “Last Call” for years, and it just seems to get worse. Currently it’s a low-budget, heavily edited interview show mostly shot at soundstages and hotels. Anyone could host it.
________________________________________
MONOLOGUE
Best: Tie between “The Jay Leno Show,” left, and “The Colbert Report,” right. Colbert can take a single idea and carry it for five minutes — and all the while he’s channeling that character of his. Leno serves up jokes like a tennis-ball machine, but who does it better? No one, that’s who.

Worst: Dave’s. Actually, Jimmy Fallon’s standup routine is probably weaker, but I am soooooooo sick of jokes about New York City weather, Bernie Madoff and the horny celebrity of the month (even if it is him).
________________________________________
INTERVIEWS
Best: Ferguson. Craig lets his life story — growing up near Glasgow, emigrating to L.A., getting sober, dealing with anger — inform and enlighten conversations. He shifts easily from laughter to intimacy with his guests and avoids scripted gags or other gimmicks.

Worst: “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Good news for Jimmy: Conan wasn’t any better with guests six months in.
________________________________________
BEST STUNTS
“The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.” From the host’s fantastic “feud” with Newark Mayor Cory Booker to the portable drum set that rode Max Weinberg out of the studio, Conan and his writers are earning their promotion.
________________________________________
BEST USE OF TAPE
“Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Video has become an essential part of late-night comedy, but “JKL” does the most and gets the most out of it, whether mocking local TV, using animation to make a news clip funnier or bleeping random words so a clip sounds dirtier than it is.
________________________________________
BEST RATINGS SPIN
ABC’s “Nightline” often declares victory over Dave and Conan by comparing its half-hour rating to their hour number. But if you use Dave’s rating from 10:30 to 11 p.m. (before his audience starts going to bed), he wins handily.
________________________________________
BEST NEW-SHOW PROMO
The one where George Lopez is getting advice from President Barack Obama, who spurns Lopez’s entreaties to become his sidekick.
________________________________________
BEST GUESTS
A tie — they all have the same guests. Or so it seems.#

The New Digital Channels Being Broadcast by Your Local Stations Could Be TV's New Wasteland

Tom Petner Posted November 3, 2009 at 3:27 AM

Do you watch any of the new local digital channels?

No, neither do I.

Welcome to television’s new wasteland of local digital multicasting. Now there are seven zillion more channels and still the same complaint, “all these channels and nothing to watch.” More accurately, there’s little worth watching on these new digital channels.

In June, local stations finally made the long talked about - more like ballyhooed - transition from analog to digital. Along with the transition, stations were allocated several digital channels where they could - I emphasize could - multicast different programs using the same spectrum space it takes for one analog channel. Simply explained, a local station, say one broadcasting on Channel 4, can also program channels 4.1., 4.2., 4.3. and 4.4. Suffice it to say, whatever digital magic makes it happen, it’s pretty cool. But pretty cool to a point.

Like the current real estate crisis of our “great recession,” there’s a lot of digital real estate available, and few buyers. No one group – or local broadcaster – has figured out how to program these channels and generate revenue, draw viewers and yes, make money. One broadcast consultant put it to me, “there’s a lot of talkin’ and not much doin’ with these channels.”

You’ll find some new options on the local tiers, including Estrella, the 24-hour Spanish-language network. There’s always RetroTV and THIStv, if you’re interested in going to nostalgia heaven or rerun hell. But some stations are using the channels to simply repurpose newscasts, regurgitating them into different life-forms of softball feature and lifestyle programs, e.g. WNBC’s gushy feature and lifestyle effort: “New York Nonstop.”

The television editor at the New York Daily News dubbed its launch this way, “New York Nonstop…feels a heck of a lot more like a channel for people staying in hotel than something for city regulars.” Ouch! In fairness to the station, at least they’re trying. Since its softball debut, the NBC station folks have been tinkering and changing. But some other stations are taking the easy way out, loading up their digital tier with the likes of AccuWeather. Just what we need, more local weathercasts.

Commissioner Michael Copps told NPR’s “All Things Considered” the new offerings are a far cry from what broadcasters could be doing with the new channels, "If this spectrum is going to be used just for home shopping and Doppler radar, it's falling far short of the purpose that it could be serving." Copps went on to say, "It has the capacity to represent local issues, local politics, local music, local religious and cultural diversity."

Flashback to 1999. I recall a group meeting in West Palm of the newly reconstituted Hearst-Pulitzer broadcast group. The buzz and discussion throughout the meetings was about the brave new digital world, horizontal integration of this, and vertical integration of that. It was a vision for the new media real estate to come and how digital integration would work. It was big dreams and high hopes for the digital future.

Flash forward 10 years, and much of what was discussed at those Hearst meetings has come to pass. Station websites, wireless and mobile applications have changed the “how” and “when” of delivering content. But stations are still struggling to figure out the “what” to offer on the digital real estate. A few groups like Hearst, Raycom, and the ABC O&O stations (I hear they’re working on programming health & wellness content) - and some stations are working on programming options for these new channels. But to date the majority of digital offerings across the country are pretty thin.

Some local stations are sticking to where they have the biggest investment, local news - using their digital tier for extended coverage. KOLD-TV in Tucson got high marks recently when the station decided to use its digital channel in a breaking news situation. Jim Arnold, Vice President and General Manager at KOLD, told me about his news department’s coverage of a multi-alarm fire at a local recycling plant, and management’s decision to go “wall-to-wall” on the station’s 13.2 Channel.

“I don’t assume thousands were watching, but it was the first time that we could show people what we could do in a breaking news situation,” said Arnold. So what’s the next step? “Now, we’re constantly thinking about other things to do. When Obama comes on the air at 8 p.m. on the east coast, and wipes-out our 5 p.m. newscast, why can’t we do out 5 p.m. newscast on 13.2 that night.”
But Arnold says there are two big problems for stations in getting traction for their digital channel programming, audience awareness and penetration. In short, no one is motivated to check them out.

One station getting some traction with its digital tier audience is Media General’s WSAV in Savannah, Georgia. Part of WSAV’s market takes in three counties in South Carolina, so the station launched something called “My Lowcountry 3” on its 3.2 channel. You might consider it a hyper-local newscast targeted to those South Carolina counties. The station produces a full hour using existing technology, a newspaper partnership in the Hilton Head area, and taps into content from other area Media General stations. As you might guess in this tight economy, no, WSAV hasn’t added staff. They shuffle around existing personnel to produce it.

“The feedback has been good. Our anchor is always on Facebook and Twitter during the show incorporating all sorts of feedback elements we’re getting from the area,” says Gabe Travers, Executive Producer at WSAV. “Advertisers seem to be interested. They’re placing orders specifically for that newscast, trying to reach people and target the area.”

If you think advertising is pretty soft generally, it’s an even tougher sell for local stations trying to pick up additional digital dollars with these channels.

But KOLD’s Jim Arnold is hopeful, “It may give smaller advertisers, a mom-and-pop shop, a chance to get on TV, and if they gain some traction, we can convert them to the bigger TV station, so to speak. I think the key is just getting people to finding all the dot-twos.”

One group executive - asking-to-remain-anonymous - explained the problem to me this way. “You can’t really measure the audience. It’s just not big enough. So the sales people don’t want to sell it, because there are no big commissions involved. Sales people don’t make money, and the station doesn’t make money off the channels. So there’s no motivation. If you put paid programming on one of the digital channels, the producers balk because no one is watching. They can’t sell their products. It comes down to a concept sell, supported ‘on the come’ by an advertiser. If you’re lucky, your approach is sorta’ like the old radio dollar-a-holler sell,” a few bucks for each mention.

Flashback several weeks. I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike to meet “the guys” for a dinner and our little Algonquin Round Table of television know-it-alls.

I asked the know-it-alls their take on the local digital tier. No surprise. No one there had the answer to the digital conundrum, but one longtime television pal and know-it-all, Jon Petrovich, shared an anecdote from his time as EVP with Sony Pictures International. He heard that one of the most successful channels was one just outside Guadalajara, Mexico. They simply mounted a camera in the town square where people could watch the comings and goings of town folks. It was a smash hit. Go figure. I suppose that’s about as hyper-local as it gets.

Maybe the answer to cracking the digital programming code is: keep it simple - keep it hyper-local. As Petrovich reminded me, WGN used to have Jack Brickhouse go outside the Tribune building every night and ask people questions, thus the MOS was born. CNN does it every day with Jack Cafferty’s email interaction with viewers.

I doubt mounting cameras in the town square or pure viewer interaction is the answer. But whatever it is, it’s time for television stations and groups to step up and do something soon, or those channels will simply rot on the spectrum.

As FCC Commissioner told NPR, "now that we put American consumers through this trauma of getting right with the technology…now what are we going to do with it?"#