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SlimeWatch: Innovation and the End of Local Television Stations

Not Me, But I've Got a 1976 Version of This Pic Somewhere

Not Me, But I've Got a 1976 Version of This Pic Somewhere

We all know business is bad. The question local newsers need to ask themselves is this: will it ever get better?

Is local television down thanks to market forces, which would leave hope of a rebound and a return to better days? Or is this more than market-driven, but a generational change–a shift in media habits that casts once dominant local TV stations as latter day vaudeville acts, doomed to ever-diminishing returns and ultimate irrelevance?

I grew up around and inside television stations and have loved the buildings, the logos and the lore as long as I can remember. I have treasured pictures of myself as a kid at WCAU, wearing a 70s era headset and posing for a picture at the studio camera. Years later, as a high school kid, I posed for a picture with a friend on the news set at WCBS. Stations are in my blood, and that’s not going to change.

But I’m sure generations of kids grew up in families dominated by Detroit, developing a love for cars, hood ornaments and engines, and sadly, nostalgia alone won’t save GM. I think stations are in just as much trouble, if not more.

TV Newsday wrote up the sagging situation last week, reporting on revenues for the top 50 broadcast companies. “Gainers Rare” read the headline. In fact, “decliners led advancers” as the market types say, in a blowout: 44 of the top 50 companies lost money in 2008, and some lost a LOT.

Sunbelt, owner of nine stations including KVBC in Las Vegas, fell 20 percent from 2007. Sunbeam (best to avoid using any derivation of “sun” in your name) dropped 15 percent. There were bright lights, though, with six companies posting modest gains.

McGraw-Hill was up 6.26 percent in 2008 (but nosedived 23 percent in 1Q 2009); Post-Newsweek was up 3.59 percent in 2008 (but down 21 percent in 1Q 2009); and Capitol was up over eight percent last year, leading CEO Jim Goodman to tell reporters at NAB in April that “the best is yet to come” for broadcasters, reported Broadcast Engineering. The DTV transition, Goodman argued, meant good things for the future of over-the-air TV.

I’m not convinced.

Anybody Else Remember WCBS and These Wild Desks?  I Do.

Anybody Else Remember WCBS and These Wild Desks? I Do.

In an excellent article on MediaPost, Diane Mermigas reports station revenues will likely fall to 1995 levels this year, and no, the money-printing machine will not be working normally when the recession ends. “TV stations’ ability to excel in the nascent but promising world of hyperlocal information and services is hindered by a slew of uncontrollable forces. There is the collapse of core ad categories, such as automotives, which has contributed about one-fourth of all TV station revenues and will never fully recover. Internet-connected streaming video for PCs and mobile devices will continue to minimize and fragment television. Despite massive reductions in workforce and legacy operations, the pooling of local news-gathering and ad sales resources, and a growing Web presence, TV stations’ economic quandary increasingly mirrors that of declining newspapers,” Mermigas reports.

“Despite the most optimistic forecasts — more than 12 legacy broadcast companies generate between $10 million and $311 million in annual revenues from the sale of online advertising, per Borrell Associates — there is no way to effectively offset lost ad dollars, some of which are not coming back.”

Can stations–facing permanent declines–innovate their way back to profit? I say no. I’ll be laying out my argument in a series of “SlimeWatch” reports here. The reference to slime is not intended to suggest any malfeasance or filth, but rather, a reference to Rishad Tobaccowala, who has argued persuasively that the innovation that will save local journalism will almost certainly NOT come from existing broadcast companies.

I encourage you to watch this video and listen to what he has to say. Then let me know what you think: can stations find a way into the future? Or are they wearing cinder block shoes?

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Local TV Newsers: Meet Denise. She May Be the Future. She May Eat Your Lunch.

702.tv's Denise Spidle

702.tv's Denise Spidle

Reading the story in the Las Vegas Sun, you could forgive a veteran local television reporter for an instinctive chuckle.  Oh, aren’t they precious!  The newspaper people are trying to do TV! They’ve even gone and bought themselves a red couch and a curtain for a backdrop!

Yeah, you definitely want to laugh it off. But here’s the weird thing about 702.tv:  it’s interesting, it’s different, and it’s the supposedly-dead medium of print, encroaching–yet again–on TV’s turf.  It’s almost like (am I crazy here?) the print people think they can win the battle for local video online.  Nah.  That’s crazy. We own that!

From the Washington Post, and it’s excellent series of video documentaries posted online, to The New York Times’ creative and compelling commitment to multi-media storytelling, it’s becoming clear the print folk don’t want to stay on their side of the fence in what’s obviously a deathmatch.  There will be local news, of course, and it’ll probably be predominantly online at some point, but thinking that we’re the experts on video and so obviously it’s the papers that have to give up and go home… well, that’s a huge mistake.

Think about your TV newsroom.  What print tricks have you adopted?  Certainly you haven’t got bodies in police precincts running through the overnight arrests, and nobody’s hanging out in the courthouse checking on interesting lawsuits.  That’s what newspapers are for, right?

Ah, but you’ve learned to write in print form for the web!  Right?  You doctor up your 6 o’clock script into a mock-print style and file it–sorry, feed it–to the website.  And what a brilliant website it is, if I know anything about local TV, I’m sure yours is creative, ground-breaking, and chock full of unique uses of video. Right?

Right?

702_tilt_logo_newEverybody in town isn’t coming out of this alive, folks.  And assuming the print people will roll over and play dead just because, you know, the printing press is dead, well, that doesn’t seem to be working.  Sure, the paper won’t be hitting doorsteps like it used to, but those print folk seem so aggressive about getting into our game.  And far moreso than we seem to be about getting into theirs.  Or even, about getting more creative about what we do.  And that’s how companies go out of business.

Doing a “webcast” that’s a lousy and dated version of your noon newscast?  That’s not creative.  That’s not going to grab someone and say, hey, that’s different. But I wouldn’t put it past the kids in Vegas from getting that reaction.  Yeah, sure, their motto is “News Never Looked So Good.”  There’s that part of the equation. I get that.  But there’s something else.  There’s a creativity here that I haven’t seen coming from TV stations.

Take a look at the winners of the Knight Foundation’s 2009 News Challenge.  No call letters among the bunch.  But a LOT of creative, multi-platform, forward-thinking ideas about taking information and getting it in front of people, instead of sitting back on our broadcast bottoms and continuing to think the audience will just keep coming to us.

The Knight Foundation Voters Decide in Miami:  Local TV?  Not on the Table.

The Knight Foundation Voters Decide in Miami: Local TV? Not on the Table.

Eric Umansky and Scott Klein of ProPublica, and Aaron Pilhofer and Ben Koski of The New York Times won $719,500 to bankroll a project aimed at enriching investigative news reports by creating an easily searchable, free, public online database of public records.  (As Jeff Jarvis would say, that’s asking “What Would Google Do?)

Gail Robinson at the Gotham Gazette won $250,000 to create an online wiki devoted to local legislators’ voting records and campaign contributions, so voters in New York can go someplace–free–and find usable information.

And in Phoenix, Aleksandra Chojnacka and Adam Klawonn of the Daily Phoenix won $95,000 to fund their idea of using news, games and social networking to help commuters on the city’s light rail system informed about their city.

Where’s the proof broadcasters get it?  Where’s the creativity that shows we will endure, succeed and prosper five years from now?  Skype liveshots?  Anchor blogs?  Weather widgets?

Folks.  The Buick dealer isn’t coming back on a white horse to save you.  What are you doing to change?

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Local TV Newsers: Has Sports Run Out the Clock?

Richard Huff at the NY Daily News puts it bluntly to local tv sports anchors and reporters:  “That’s it.  Goodnight.  Go home.”  As stations’ budgets contract and reporters are cut from payrolls, Huff argues the money committed to a daily sportscast is not well spent:  “When die-hard sports fans are glued to ESPN – with tickers at the bottom of the screen giving them all the results – along with all-sports Web sites, what exactly do local sportscasters bring to the table?

Very little, if you think about it.

Generally speaking, local sports anchors update box scores and intro highlights.”

As we’ve reported, KVVU/Las Vegas just decided to drop weeknight sportscasts altogether, saving sports for weekends and special events.  George Michael unplugged the Sports Machine in DC.  

A High School Football Game... on ESPN

A High School Football Game... on ESPN/New York Times Photo

And if you take a moment today to drift over to the sports office in your newsroom today and take the talent’s temperature, you’ll notice an icy fear.  They feel time running out.  Anchors who once had extended segments in weeknight newscasts now struggle to get in a minute of scores, and most have had the experience of hearing, scripts in hand, IFB in ear, pancake on face, “Sports is dead!” as a breaking news story forced news producers to take back the few seconds sports was allotted to make room for live chopper pictures of that rolled-over bakery truck.

So, come on sportsters… what’s the argument for survival?  Can a regional cable sports net cover high schools as well as you can?  Can ESPN really do what you do?

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Vegas Station Benches Weeknight Sports

The longtime local news formula of news, weather and sports has been sliced by a third at KVVU/Las Vegas, where the weeknight sportscast has been sent to the showers. “The sportscast is not what the viewers come to us for, research has been telling us that for years,” KVVU news director Adam Bradshaw told reviewjournal.com‘s Steve Bornfeld. “The economics of broadcasting dictate we put our resources in places where we’re going to get ratings.”

Bornfeld reports today KVVU will continue to cover sports, including weekend sportscasts.

The full cut comes after years of cutbacks in sports coverage, with some local news stations dialing back the daily sportscast to something in the “sports and scores in a minute” range, and putting sports photographers into the daily news shooting mix, and cutting sports reporters at many stations.

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