An open letter to television managers

Dear Television Manager,

This letter is offered in good faith and asks some fundamental strategic questions that have probably already been on your mind. If not, this might be eye-opening. Either way, it’s my hope you will act on what’s stated here.

When I first began consulting nearly ten years ago, I was known for little sayings about news that people dubbed “Heatonisms.” Here’s the very first: “Revenue isn’t the problem; audience is the problem. Fix the problem.” What television did back then is the same thing we’re doing today, we’re trying to fix a secondary revenue problem while the real problem just keeps getting worse.

Television news just isn’t what it used to be, and it never will be again. We look at research proving we’re still the best advertising bang for the buck and completely miss the point that it won’t matter soon, because the trend lines are unmistakable. Viewing has been dropping for many years, and nothing is going to change that, absent some totally different way of presenting some local product.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual “State of the News Media” report earlier this year was straightforward about this:

The most basic problem facing local television news is that its traditional audience is shrinking. In 2010, audiences continued to decline in all three key time slots: morning, early evening and late night.

…A pattern noticed a year ago continued in 2010. Our analysis found that ratings dropped more sharply than share (emphasis mine) for all key time slots in most sweeps periods. Ratings measure the percentage of households with TVs that are tuned to a particular program. Share measures the percentage of people who actually have their TVs on at a particular time and who are tuned to a specific program. A ratings decline, while share holds steady, means a program has fewer total viewers but the same percentage of the available audience. To put it another way, one reason local TV news in the traditional time slots is losing viewers is because people are turning off their sets when the news is on (emphasis mine).

Why are they turning TV sets off during news time? Because “the news” is already known by the people formerly known as the audience. So we fiddle with managing revenue in an environment that needs — but doesn’t get — attention. Well, Terry, it is what it is. What would you have us do?

We are promoting a decaying strategy, so the first thing we need to do is to stop that, and nowhere is this worse than on the Web. We have websites. We use Twitter. We use Facebook. But our essential purpose in so doing is to be a better TV station online. Make no mistake about it, this is a dreadful error, for AR&D’s own research shows that up to 90% of a TV station website’s traffic is comprised of the station’s own viewers. We’re talking to a closed and shrinking universe. We brag when we beat our competition online with absolutely no sense of who that competition really is. We’re still competing with the other TV stations online, and how foolish is that? This is the same strategic flaw that produces convergence sales. The brand of a TV station is today both a blessing and a curse.

So, Mr. and Ms. Managers, lead the local TV cheers for your sales departments, because they won’t be inspired to sell otherwise, but let’s work on fixing what’s really broken: the loss of audience. Let’s begin with four simple acknowledgements.

  1. Television news as it’s currently presented is a dying beast. We can do lots of things to be top dog in our markets, but even the top dog is the equivalent of the last buggy whip maker. At AR&D, we’re working on some prototype program concepts, because we know that nobody’s going to come back for that from which they fled. Those people turning their sets off will never reverse themselves for the same old good-looking people with boxes over their shoulders. Online is the future (I consider mobile to be “online”), so let’s look there.
  2. Our online competition is not the other TV stations; it’s all the pureplay revenue grabs that aren’t bound by the rules of being a TV station online. The most important current and future use of our TV stations is to use them to promote our online offerings, and that’s smart strategy. That and feet-on-the-street are the only competitive advantages we have over those pureplays. Doing news online is a smart thing, but it needs to be in real-time across-the-board and not just Twitter and Facebook. News also needs to be aggregated and curated, and that means acknowledging the other news producers in the market. That’s what the pureplays do. They’re not encumbered by a local brand.
  3. We need to embrace the reality that content isn’t our “business;” advertising is our business, and we need to be immersed in the latest from the revolution in advertising. The biggest, most fruitful shift in advertising today is the sharing of risk. Google pioneered it (pay only for clicks); Groupon raised it to an art level (split revenue; no customers, no deal). However, I think the greatest innovations in this area are still ahead. Advertisers are the new media companies, and the idea of money for simple placement alone is slowly dying, unless you’re the Superbowl. Results are what the new advertising world wants, provable results, and unless we’re in there with those who are offering such, we’re simply going to be left behind. But this is an advertising problem, not a content problem, so content solutions won’t do much. If you believe that advertisements adjacent to content is the best business model for the Web, I feel sorry for you.
  4. Our content will be aggregated, and this is where we will compete with traditional and other forms of local media. We resist this at our own peril, and so the smart thing to do is develop strategies that make it profitable to completely unbundle our content from our owned infrastructure. We want our content aggregated. We want ours to shine among the rest. We want users to take our content with them and to interact with that at their convenience. We want to find new advertising opportunities within an aggregated environment.

The paradox of working in media today is that it’s both brutal and exciting at the same time, kind of like being at sea during a storm. The advice there is to keep your focus on the horizon dead ahead, for attention to the waves is will make you sick. Here, that focus must be on the truths made apparent by acceptance of certain big trends. Follow those and hang on for the bumpy ride.

There is a future, and it is bright.

Thanks for reading,

Terry

Comments

  1. We have the same problem here in the UK all be it on a smaller scale. local media including TV, newspapers and radio have all been shedding staff on a monumental scale.
    The all seem to blame the economy but I think peoples habbits are changing and I for one use my i – phone to satisfy my every need for news and information.

  2. @Verity, you are right. Habits of people are changing nowadays, People generally turned off their TV sets when any news has been broadcast. One reason behind this can be the technology involvement. People are generally checking the news on their mobile set using the internet. Second reason may be the advertisement. Some of the news channel give importance to the ads rather than news. So, if they want to increase their momentum, they need to work harder.

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