TV News in a Postmodern World
Giving Away The Future?

by Terry L. Heaton
My mother always cut the apple pie into six pieces, so I grew up with an appetite for a fairly hefty slice of pie. There were five of us in the family, and the extra piece went to Dad's lunch bucket. It took me a long time to understand the nasty looks from the people at church when I put two pieces on my plate at the newcomer's potluck. I couldn't quite figure out why they made the slices so small in the first place.

This explains why I have a fairly simple understanding of the FCC's relaxation of ownership rules. What I don't understand is why TV station groups don't recognize and act upon the ultimate futility of the strategy of buying up more pieces of the pie. A better metaphor would be the purchase of more deck space on the Titanic.

For the past 3 years, the UCLA Center for Communication Policy has conducted tracking research about the changing media landscape in the U.S. The findings are chilling, especially for television and television news. Here are the basic, irrefutable facts:

  • Internet use continues to grow rapidly.
  • As Internet use grows, television viewing goes down.
  • People with both in the home now use the Internet as much as they use TV.
  • Broadband is growing rapidly.
  • People with broadband spend even more time on the Internet and less watching TV.
  • These trends are more acute with children, young people and experienced Internet users.
  • And, among Internet users, the Net has become their most significant source of information.
  • Despite this obvious movement away from television and to the Internet (especially among young people), TV stations and their owners continue to ignore that they have the wherewithal to actually bridge the two mediums. But they don't understand the Internet and are frustrated by attempts to employ broadcast sales strategies in a medium that rejects the very nature of passive participation. They gave up years ago, and now the world of local television station Websites is dominated by two companies, Internet Broadcasting Systems (IBS) and Worldnow.

    The formula is simple. These companies provide co-ownership Websites for the stations. The stations drive traffic to the sites through their broadcasts. The "network" type effect created by these companies is attractive to some advertisers. The groups and the networks split the revenues and costs, with the financial specifics varying among the member groups.

    It seems like a magnificent business win-win. According to Broadcasting & Cable, IBS revenues grew from $27 million in 2001 to $42 million last year and a projected $58 million this year. The company was profitable for the first time in the fourth quarter of 2002 and expects to build on that in the year ahead.

    In a time of downsizing, Internet networking seems like a no-brainer for TV stations and groups, but I believe the partnership is based on false assumptions and the promise of something-for-nothing for the stations.

    False Assumptions:
  • You can be a TV station and not do TV on the Internet.
  • You can't make substantial revenue from the Internet.
  • The broadcasting mindset of "all things to all people" works on the Internet.
  • Cluttered portal sites are what users want.
  • Advertisers will accept banner advertising.
  • Users can't see through the shallowness and sameness of these sites.
  • The underlying truth is that these networks exist for the benefit of the networks, not the TV stations or their ownership groups. And it's a double-whammy for station groups who've put cash into equity positions with these networks. To object, therefore, is seen as shooting oneself in the foot. However, the truth is that the wound was inflicted when the deal was signed in the first place.

    Television stations are obsessed with recruiting young viewers, yet they gave away their access to young people when they signed on with these networks. Who could blame them? The promise was easy money. The promise hasn't changed, but the price certainly has.

    It's not too late for local TV to get back the years they've given away, but they must act quickly. If your deal with an Internet network can't be broken, buy another domain and get busy doing TV News on the Web! You need to do this, because if you don't, somebody else will.

    Ten recommendations to consider:

    1. Always remember, users are in charge. You are not. Respect them. Empower them. Steer clear of manipulation of any kind. Internet users can see right through it.

    2. The narrower the focus, the greater the likelihood for success. In other words, get out of the mindset of 'broadcasting'. Trying to be all things to all people is self-destructive. Resist it. Portals don't work. Forget links to the network or anywhere else. Keep it very simple and serve that niche will all your might. Forget all the "live, local, late breaking" hype (for now).

    3. Think young and postmodern. Don't shy away from points-of-view. Don't feel everything needs to be explained, make sense, or have a reason.

    4. The most important person you can hire is a creative Flash programmer, somebody who can bring ads to life.

    5. From the beginning, design it to be advertiser-friendly. Sell sponsorships that give the advertiser exclusive exposure on a rotating, user-by-user basis. Let's say Bill Heard Chevrolet is a sponsor. Depending on where they are in the 'rotation', when a user hits during their "turn," the only advertiser that user is exposed to is Bill Heard Chevrolet. Create Flash ad pieces that compliment the user experience and give him options for more. All the skins (the frames around media players) and backgrounds have a Bill Heard influence. In other words, the entire user experience changes, based on which sponsor is in the rotation. Use your Flash master to create games and other interactivity for the sponsor.

    6. Install the Groopz or some other interactive chat software in the sales offices of the station and your advertisers. When somebody hits the interactive request for more info, a sales professional can talk to them in real time. This is power, because you're delivering customers directly to their business!

    7. The guts of the site would be an interactive machine with pizzazz. Stack thumbnail-sized, playerless versions of stories on one side. Users could play them with a click or move them to the main player to view in a larger size or full screen. Select the company that provides your video streaming based on the quality and speed they can provide.

    8. Provide nothing about your TV personalities. Personality doesn't drive the Internet. Information does. Anchors represent elite authority, something young (postmodernist) people reject. This doesn't mean they can't or won't identify with point-of-view anchors and reporters. They just don't accept the idea of traditional authority figures.

    9. Provide interactive weather tools. You've spent all those years teaching about the weather. It's time to let your viewers/users use what they've been taught.

    10. Don't be afraid to compete with yourself. Get over the 'bastard child' view of the Internet. It's got the people you want, and unlike your broadcast facility, the audience is growing. Break stories there. Sell it, sell it, sell it. Adjust your thinking to the current reality and create a synergy that'll show the entire community you can meet their information needs regardless of the forum they select.

    Thus far, the FCC's decision has spoken only to those who view it as the death knell for modern journalism and the diversity of opinion. Frankly, I think that's grossly overstated, and I hope media owners can rise above the weeping and gnashing of teeth to see a future that's actually quite the opposite of the rhetoric.

    It's not about carving up a single pie. It's about firing up the oven of the Internet and baking a few more.