Local TV news is getting desperate. Like a former lover who wants you back, it pleads for one more chance when you’re watching prime-time programming. It promises things will be different: The special reports really will be special this time, and we’re not kidding about the big snowstorm. It’s coming. You’ll be sorry.
But fewer and fewer viewers are giving local news another chance. We’re getting our news on cable, iPads and smartphones, whenever we want and wherever we happen to be. Philadelphia local news ratings have been in a tailspin for years. In May of 2006, 1.2 million households watched a 10 or 11 o’clock news program. This past February, only 656,100 tuned in, a drop of nearly 45 percent in just five years. When the news comes on, more and more people aren’t just changing the channel: They’re turning off the TV. Can you blame them?
The world has changed, and TV news hasn’t. Anchors sit at a desk at a designated time, tossing to reporters at the scene of the story you already read about that morning. The weatherperson talks forever in front of a map; the sports anchor shows you 10 seconds of highlights from three games. As it was in the ’70s, so it is now. My kids and their friends from elementary school could do a similar newscast with Flip cams, Skype, a green screen and video from YouTube, and it would be a heck of a lot more interesting.
Local news has to start not only changing with the times, but catching up with the times. We already have the information; tell us what it means. Give us reaction, perspective and expert analysis. To pull it off, quite frankly, they need smarter people. They need to stop hiring anchors who look the part but don’t understand or even care about the news they’re reading from the teleprompter.
If they really want to do news right, they should forget the late news altogether. Things happen 24 hours a day—why doesn’t Philadelphia have a 24-hour news station? New York has NY1 News, provided by Time Warner Cable. Philadelphia, home of Comcast, doesn’t have a 24/7 local all-news channel? Now that Comcast owns NBCUniversal and NBC 10 locally, it’s time to start a ’round-the-clock Philadelphia news channel and stream it live on the Internet.
I still love local news. I just hate to see it let itself go like this.
This story originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.