Monday, April 14, 2008

Make local TV news more like TV again

Cory Bergman April 11th, 2008

Lost Remote

It struck me as I was talking to a few TV news friends the other day. As we all know, TV news has stepped up urgency, pacing and visual craziness in an effort to “hold” your attention and comply with your busy schedule. But really, doesn’t it expedite the decline of TV news? I mean, if you want a quick scan of the day’s news, there’s no more efficent medium than the web. Yet in a linear way, TV is trying to replicate this experience on TV. Shouldn’t TV news focus on television’s strengths instead of trying to offset its weaknesses?

TV news’ biggest strength is visual, emotional storytelling. (Immediacy is important, too, but the web is developing a reputation for being as immediate or even more so.) Yet how often on local TV news (or cable TV news for that matter) do you see a well-produced, well-shot, emotional, impactful story? You know, the kinds of stories that you just can’t do justice when you try to rewrite them for the web? They’re few and far between, but these are the stories that people want to see on TV. They’re what TV is all about.

So why don’t newsrooms produce more of these stories? Keep reading…

1. They believe that urgency and a high “story count” will help hold a viewer’s attention, but in actuality, these techniques strip the TV goodness from these stories and make them a commodity. One of the worst rules is a time restriction on reporter stories, regardless of the strength of the story. In the end, nobody remembers anything. It’s just visual clutter.

2. Newsrooms believe that the major TV newscasts must provide a comprehensive, competitive view of the day’s biggest and most interesting stories. Ooh, the newspaper or the station across the street has this story, so we better put a reporter on it so we’re competitive. So in essense, everyone is reporting on the same stories. This, again, commoditizes news and gives viewers no reason to carve out time in their day to watch you. They’ll just go online for their news on their own schedules. Instead, dedicate your resources on relevant original stories that leverage the strengths of television. Empower reporters and photographers to enterprise and reward them for it.

3. Newsrooms are afraid to cover stories that aren’t teasable. But “teasable” has a narrow definition: urgent, dangerous, unbelievable, sexy! And frankly, these kinds of lowest-common-denominator teases are repelling normal people from television to the web. In reality, good enterprise pieces with emotional human stories are also teasable. In fact, they’re more teasable than that other crap because they’re more relevant. It’s time to redefine the word “teasable.” Respect the audience, and they’ll respect you back.

4. Newsrooms are afraid to replay stories across newscasts. Instead, they’re updated, stripped down, freshened or even repackaged by an anchor or another reporter. But in reality, a decreasing number of viewers ages 25-54 are watching multiple newscasts. They’re too busy, and they’re getting more news online. At most, they’ll watch a morning newscast and a evening or late newscast. So avoiding duplication — and requiring that a story be freshened — stretches resources even thinner. These resources could be focused on covering better stories and producing better TV.

5. And the biggest hurdle: newsrooms say they don’t have the resources to pull this off. After all, there are too many newscasts to fill, too many mouths to feed. First off, it’s all how you prioritize your resources (refer to my earlier points). By letting good stories run longer, blowing off run-of-the-mill stories (who cares if your competition has it?) and re-airing the best reporter stories, you’ve already gone a long ways in extending your resources. And second, well-shot, well-produced stories don’t require days to put together. Local TV news isn’t 60 Minutes, and that will never change. But there are many talented storytellers who turn impactful stories on a daily deadline. They just need to be empowered to do so (and don’t let the assignment desk interrupt them for some stupid VOSOT.) Oh, and if you don’t have many talented storytellers — just live shot jockeys — it’s time for some personnel changes.

In the end, the decision to embrace quality storytelling will take strong leadership. It’s time to make TV news more like TV again, or just about everyone will get their news from the web. It’s that simple. I believe there’s room for two vibrant businesses: TV news and online news. But the more TV tries to be a linear version of the web, the faster viewers will flee.

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