Guest Commentary: Some new rules for local news

Oct 15, 2001  •  Post A Comment

What’s a local news department to do, more than a month after Sept. 11? That latest consultants’ report, the latest ratings tracking, the focus groups last summer-none of those offer a hint to what local newscasts should do now.
Now we are in a unique time as two events coincide. Sept. 11 brought the most serious attack against the United States on its own soil since TV began. We have seen video that will resonate through our culture as have images of Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War. Secondly, Americans have again increased their use of TV for news and information during a time of national concern and interest.
News viewing is up in many TV markets. Often the broadcast network news outdraws local news. Cable news networks have much larger audiences than they did a year ago. Let’s pretend, or assume, the advertising side of the TV business will eventually recover.
That leaves us to figure out what makes good business sense right now-how to serve TV viewers in such a way that viewership continues at a higher level than a year ago. Perhaps some TV managers might even want to take a wild gamble, attempting to attract news viewers under the age of 95.
Some suggestions:
Aim your daily local news at something besides short-term ratings gains. Viewers want and need information and analysis they respect. Some sense that local TV news is a public service would be welcomed by staff and viewers alike. The national networks did excellent town halls. Did many local stations? What and how are you promoting for November? What are the political, economic, social and cultural effects locally of this ongoing story? What local organizations are going to be involved in relief or war efforts?
Don’t cater to the lowest common denominator in your audience. Many stations have done this consistently for two decades, leaving local news in the anemic position it held on Sept. 10. A year ago, only the feeble or feeble-minded seemed unable to change channels to avoid local news. Ratings numbers for local news have decreased incessantly for years.
I know about sleazy sweeps wars-I’ve played the game myself, with determination. Sweeps drive the revenue … and we all know those viewers who already tolerate the daily pap are the easiest ones to lure back again and again. So too often the refrain is “So give ’em what they want.” Forget the majority of viewers who’ve left TV news out of their daily routine.
Decades of local sweeps promotion and rating gimmicks have trained the growing number of well-educated TV viewers that their local news is: (a) sleazy, (b) sensational, (c) irrelevant, (d) all crime, (e) written by idiots, (f) all of the above.
Please, cut the cliches. Spare us blaring graphics and stupid headlines. I know it requires staff time and resources to do real reporting and gather information not already on the wires or in last night’s script. I know increased content production has no immediate dividend in ad sales.
But long-term (does anybody think that way in local TV?), it will pay to give viewers new information and live coverage. That’s what we all wanted from TV starting Sept. 11.
In much of America, education is seen as a good thing. People pay money for it. Now local TV news can help educate viewers and do well by doing good. Need outside expertise? Somebody to talk to viewers about Afghanistan, military hardware, Special Forces techniques, the international oil industry, Islam, Central Asian culture? Now is the time to find that expertise. Viewers know it isn’t in your news staff. The reporter who covered the fire yesterday is not suddenly an expert on Iraqi affairs.
As the United States is bombing Afghanistan and continues to be deeply involved in the aftermath of Sept. 11, viewers will want fresh and serious news. Local news has a chance to resurrect itself as a service to viewers who want and need information, a service used by thoughtful, educated consumers-just those people, come to think of it, that advertisers have wanted you to deliver all along.
Mr. Fuller is a former news director at both KGO-TV and KPIX-TV in San Francisco as well as a former general manager of KPIX. He is also the former news director at TechTV, a start-up cable channel. He is currently executive producer at CNBC Europe in London.