How to Save Local TV News

Local TV news is a frog in a boiling pot.

You may have heard the metaphor before. If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if you put it in tepid water and slowly bring up the heat, the frog will boil to death, unaware of the danger.

Philadelphia TV news — like local news all around the country — is dying, and it is the Internet, cable TV and iPhones that are turning up the heat. Like a frog in a pot, local TV news managers ignore the bubbles and just keep doing what they have been doing for years.[SIGNUP]

Sure, they put their content on the new digital platforms — on websites, podcasts and phone apps— in search of the audiences they lost. But if people don’t want to watch, a new platform is not going to help. That’s not the problem. The problem is the content.

Local TV news is a product. The product is simple — it’s content and people. End of list.

But TV managers obsess over everything else, things like slick graphics, color schemes, clothing, hair styles, beauty, sets, and the overall “look” of the newscast. Frankly, they obsess about everything but the content of the newscast.

The content has basically remained the same for decades now. Twenty-to-thirty second videos of a fire, a car crash, a sinkhole or any living thing that is stranded anywhere. “Live” takes precedence over everything; car chases, trash fires or snow flurries, if we can take it “live,” it’s on the air. Reporters get one minute and 10 seconds to tell a story and not a minute longer. That is, unless they have a “special report” on a fad diet, Internet porn, deadly mold, cosmetic surgery or the latest sex survey, then you get double, even triple, that time.

And Weather! Weather! Weather! If the temperature drops 10 degrees, lead with weather. If we get frost, lead with weather. If there is snow in the forecast eight days from now, lead with weather. If there isn’t anything else good to lead with, lead with weather.

But don’t tell them anything about the forecast in that first weather hit. God forbid! Just “tease” the viewers with some pictures of snow in Montana that could be “coming our way,” or a graphic of a thermometer with the mercury dropping. Or just show a map that no one understands, anything so they stick around until 22 minutes after the hour so our ratings don’t drop in the second half of the newscast.

You see, research shows that viewers love weather. It is the number one reason that people watch local news. But in reality, most viewers just want the forecast for the next few days. In future research projects, try asking viewers if they really want four weather hits and one-third of the newscast given to maps, models, satellite images and Doppler, all in a calculated effort to get you to stick around for the following day’s forecast…which, of course, has been stretched into a five-day forecast of moderate accuracy, and a 10-day outlook of little or no accuracy, that ends exactly when the ratings meter clicks.

Guess what the answer would be.

Sports? Hah! Local news don’t need no stinkin’ sports! Give the sports anchor one minute, maybe two. Only 32 percent of local news viewers tune in for sports. If the Phillies make it too the World Series, the stations will just pretend they have been following them all along.
Politics? Forget it. Maybe they’ll cover it at election time, and then only if they have too. According to the outdated research that stations cling to, only 20 percent of the viewers like political stories. That puts politics somewhere down at the bottom of the priority list with stories about the homeless, prisons, budgets and business news.

Local news managers will blame 24-hour news stations for stealing their viewers. Hey, news managers: They didn’t steal your viewers. You chased them there.

So now ESPN, Fox Sports and Comcast SportsNet get all the sports viewers, and all are doing very well. Fox News, MSNBC and CNN get all of the viewers who care about politics, and they are doing well. And CNBC and The Fox Business channel are getting all of the business and investment viewers, and they are doing very well.

Meanwhile, local TV news becomes the place for weather, fires, car chases and not so “special reports” that air only during the rating’s periods. Anything of depth, importance, substance or that doesn’t have video to support it loses out to pacing, time and bad judgment.

The result: the combined news ratings of 6ABC, CBS3, NBC10 and Fox29 are down almost 40 percent over the past ten years. And still the frogs sit in the pot.

The answer to local TV news’ problems is just a few dozen clicks up the cable dial. Cable news networks get it.

Actually, the cable channels are excelling in all areas. Last year among all video content providers — local TV, network TV, the Internet and cable — only cable TV showed a gain in viewers and revenue over the year before. Yet if you tell anyone in local news that they should be paying more attention to what is being done on cable TV, they will laugh and discount it with a smug wave of the hand, even while the water is coming to a boil in the pot. By the way, those same people will go home and watch cable TV at night and monitor cable TV news during the day.

Local TV news is important and can be saved, but TV executives have to be willing to change and make some bold steps.

1. Start at the top: Start promoting programming, content and news managers to general manager–not just sales and finance managers. I believe the slow death of local TV news began when huge conglomerates swallowed up the networks and tried to squeeze every dime out of the stations that they referred to as “cash cows.” Prior to the takeovers, the quickest path to running a station was through the news department. It made sense, as the news departments accounted for the majority of money made at a local station. But under the new corporate philosophy of making quarterly budgets and increasing sales margins over all else, content has suffered. Ironically, it is that same philosophy that has led to a slow but steady decline in revenues. Improve the content and viewers will come back, that will lead to more advertisers and ultimately more money. Start by putting those who have spent a career caring about content in the top spots and not those who have to learn about content as they go.

2. Have a “viewers first” philosophy: Stop worrying about impressing your corporate bosses and start worrying about impressing the viewers. This mindset change is crucial. In the new corporate world of broadcasting, executives are worried about keeping, jobs not excelling at, their jobs. You would think the goals would be synonymous, but they are not. In a desperate attempt to make the corporate gods happy, local TV managers will often make moves that they know full well will lose an audience. So far, no one has had the courage to buck that trend of spiraling self-destruction and take the chance that good product and good people will eventually bring back viewers.

3. Get rid of the consultants. This one-size-fits-all, homogenization of local news has caused every station to look the same, cover the same stories, end their segments at the exact same time and, in the end, lose their identity. Try this test: tonight at 11 o’clock flip through all of the stations. More times than not you will notice they are covering the exact same stories at the exact same time with similar video and similar writing. It is all consultant-driven. It’s not just in Philadelphia. Local TV newscasts across the country look the same, act the same and are all dying the same slow death in the same simmering pot. Try to be different and people will really have a reason to choose your station over the other and you will no longer have to promote your newscast with phrases that mean nothing, like “Weather Authority.”

4. Hire people with Philadelphia ties: News coverage will always be better when assigned, managed, produced, reported and anchored by people who know the area and care about it. Philadelphia especially has nuances, traditions and an attitude that you have to be a part of to fully understand. It is what made NBC 10’s Bill Baldini the best reporter ever to pick up a microphone in this city. CBS3’s Walt Hunter is a close second. They both grew up here and are involved in their communities. They care. They understand. We have all suffered through out-of-town anchors butchering local names, and I have suffered though explaining to an out-of-town producer why Wilt Chamberlin’s death was a big story in Philadelphia. But it is carpetbagger managers who are especially troublesome to local TV news, as they seem to care only about their career and little about the area. These managers blow into town, make changes so they can make their mark, and then blow out with damage left behind and no improvement in the ratings to show for it. The next managers then blow into town and do the same. What is left is a pile of shattered careers and a newscast that has never found an identity. Which brings me to my next point….

5. Consistency: Find a team and a philosophy that works and stick with it. This is also called the WPVI formula. Every new management team that comes to Philadelphia recognizes the power of Action News and the obvious reasons for its success. WPVI hires good people and they keep them. How many anchor teams have come and gone since Jim Gardner has been the main anchor at WPVI? But consistency is not only having the right people, but also the right news judgment. WPVI has never wavered in its high-minded philosophy to local news. It has never succumbed to making news decisions simply for a quick boost in the ratings. I can give you a personal example. The day that I was sentenced for accessing my co-anchor’s email accounts was also the day of Philadelphia police officer Timothy Simpson’s funeral procession through the city. I was horrified when every local station in the city led their newscast and gave more coverage to the tabloid, celebrity-driven story of my sentencing than to the funeral of a man who gave his life protecting this city. I should say, every local newscast but one. 6ABC led all of their newscasts that day with the funeral and honored Officer Simpson and his family. My sentencing was downplayed in contrast. The way it should have been on that day.

6. Stop sexualizing women. This is a practice that is slowly ending as local managers understand that the women viewers they are trying to get aren’t impressed with the young sexpots the general managers love to hire. It is sexist at its core, ageist in its consequence. Young, sexy women with tight tops flirting at the camera do nothing to attract a 45-year-old working mom who just wants the news. That mom can see right through the act. Thank goodness some news executives are becoming more enlightened about the beauty and experience of veteran women journalists, or we wouldn’t have the wonderful writing and caring of Carol Erickson and Pat Ciarrochi, the professionalism and knowledge of Renee Chenault-Fattah and Monica Malpas, or the charisma and grace of Lisa Thomas Laury. I applauded when one of the brightest journalists on the national scene, Candy Crawley, was named host of a Sunday morning show on CNN. Again, if you want to get keep women viewers, hire women who do not insult the sensibilities of women. And on this point, stop the condescending “special reports” geared towards the 25-to-54-year-old female demographic. Specials like, “High Heel Horrors,” “Oh, My Aching Bra” and “Get a Butt Like Beyonce” are insulting to intelligent women who want the news. You do not need to lower the content to reach women viewers, you need to elevate it.

7. Give perspective, analysis and depth. This is very important and represents a change in the way news must be presented now. One of the reasons I believe I was successful at attracting viewers at both NBC10 and CBS3 is that I pushed for time on the air to explain the importance of stories with graphics and maps. The problem is that it takes extra time in the newscast, and news managers and producers are still stuck in the consultant-driven, 1980’s approach to a fast-paced, MTV, short-attention-span newscast. One of the secrets to the success of cable news is that they understand the news audiences thirst for more in the digital age. Bill O’Reilly recently gave a speech at Boston University, his alma mater, and explained that people are getting news and information from a variety of sources. What they want from the evening news is perspective. And that is what cable news does best. Unfortunately, O’Reilly, Olbermann, Beck, Maddow, et al, espouse a point of view. At the local level, you do not have to be an ideologue to add intelligence, perspective, depth, analysis and, yes, even opinion to a newscast. You just have to give the time and hire people who can pull it off. That is, hire people who have personalities and can write, not just people who look good in the first five seconds of their resume tape. This will take a bit of a change in philosophy as news managers will have to start valuing intelligence in the anchor chair over Ken and Barbie looks.

8. Local, Local, Local: Local TV news stations have forgotten that they have a monopoly on the markets they cover. Unlike their network TV news brethren who have been hurt badly by cable, local TV news should have no competition when it comes to local news. Local news should be their bread and butter. So why do they insist on crowding their newscasts with Paris Hilton, California car chases and any decent video from anywhere but here? Why? Because those stories are provided by a network feed, and it is a cheap and easy way to fill a newscast. The problem is that CNN, ABC, CNS, MSNBC, Fox News, Headline News and every site on the Internet has already used the same video and covered the story. What the networks and cable don’t have is the Philadelphia city council fight over the budget or the protest over new construction in Montgomery County. You know, the stories that local stations rarely cover. Go back to local, local, local and people will come back to you because they have nowhere else to get that information. When you do cover national and international stories —because they are so big you can’t ignore them — make certain you have a local angle. Don’t copy and paste the national news, as you give your viewers no reason to stick around.

9. Really get Involved with the community. Every station in town wants to give the impression they are involved with the community. For most, it is just a promotional ploy, a way to make more money, or a way to falsely promote its talent. Most TV personalities will only make an appearance if there is a news camera there or free food. Many leave right after the camera is gone and their bellies are full. Being involved means showing up when the camera isn’t there, covering charity and community events even when one of your news team isn’t involved, partnering with charities even when there is no money in it for the station and encouraging your news people to really get involved in volunteering because it is the right thing to do. The idea is to give back, not take advantage. I applaud 6ABC for assigning a camera every day to cover community and charity events. It is why they can make the claim that they are everywhere. How many people do you think turn in every night to Action News just to see if they are on the air? It is smart, and it is the right thing to do.

10. Do meaningful investigations and stories that make a difference. I applaud CBS3’s Jim Osman, Fox29’s Jeff Cole, NBC10’s Harry Hairston and LuAnn Cahn. They are part of a dying breed of investigative TV reporters in this country who are given time to expose wrong doing. I also applaud the three stations who give resources to this important facet of local news. Now take the next step and give the reporters more time so they can go after the really powerful. Stop forcing stories on the air before they are ready, and stop going after the quick and easy hits, like small business. Take on City Hall and the rich and powerful corporations. Do investigations and stories that make a difference. And, by the way, it does not even have to be an investigation to make a difference. Allow your reporters to keep banging the drum of a community story that can bring about change under the weight of the attention. I was able to get the city to re-light the Eternal Flame in Washington Square because the station allowed me to go on the air every night and put pressure on the city. Stories that truly make a difference are the best promotion for your stations and will get people to watch and take notice.

I have many more suggestions like these — stop airing reports from the station groups that have little to do with the Philadelphia area; stop doing stories because you think the topic is promotable even when there is no story there; stop misleading people in your teases and promotions — but for now I will leave it at the 10 I listed.

If you forget any one of them, just put a sign in your newsroom that reads –

It’s the viewers, stupid!

Ignoring that simple fact is like ignoring the steam and the bubbles surrounding you. Like a frog in a pot, you slowly die in the heat of your own ignorant bliss.

LARRY MENDTE is a former Philadelphia news anchor. His commentaries are seen at Tribune television stations across the country. You can see them at www.wpix.com

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