TV News in a Postmodern World
TV Viewers and Internet Users
are Different Animals.

by Terry L. Heaton
There's an old joke about the devil not wanting televangelists in hell. Billy Graham would get everybody saved. Oral Roberts would get everybody healed. And Pat Robertson would raise the money for air conditioning. I used to work for Pat and acknowledge the truth behind that joke. One year when I was there, we raised $246 million in contributions. This master fund-raiser taught me many things that I've applied in my life. One of my favorite quotes is, "If you want to catch trout, you've got to use trout bait."

To broadcasters, people are just people and everybody's a viewer. That presumption, I'm afraid, is leading the industry into a crisis as New Media continues to erode viewership. The industry has responded with Websites that ignore the essential truth that an Internet user is NOT a television viewer. The mindset that any broadcasting paradigm will work on the Internet is just, well, ignorant. Hence, the Web doesn't work for broadcasting, because if you want to catch trout, you've got to use trout bait.

In my work, I've studied volumes of research and talked to hundreds of Internet CEOs. I used to run an Internet company, and knowing my users was priority number one. So, for the sake of furthering the discussion about why I believe broadcasters are missing an important opportunity, here are some of the differences between TV viewers and Internet users. I sincerely hope that this will help lead to the creation of Internet trout bait for broadcasters.

Television is passive and the Internet is active. This is rule #1 in understanding the trout we're trying to catch, and I cannot possibly overstate its importance. The person with a hand on the mouse is absolutely in charge. You will not, can not overcome this reality. The instant you attempt to sidestep this truth, you've lost the user - and likely for a very long time. Internet users don't want to be held by the hand. They want to use what they've been taught, not sit through lectures they don't need. Nowhere is this truer than with local weather. Give me the forecast, but let me play with the toys you use.

Broadcasters are used to having it their way. They determine what people watch, when they watch it, the number of commercials they have to endure, and so forth. Broadcasters originally denied the influence of remote control devices only to learn that a great many people click the moment their program goes to a commercial break. I know many people who watch several programs at once by simply switching back and forth during commercials. The control an Internet user has is far, far greater than one equipped merely with a remote.

None of the fundamental assumptions of broadcasting apply with the Internet. It's a completely different communications medium. For example:

  • All things to all people. The fundamental reality about broadcasting assumes that a single entity can provide programming that will serve the masses. It worked in the early days of TV, but the extent to which broadcasters cling to this belief in the 21st century amazes me. The Internet works on the basis of narrowcasting, but even the 'casting' is erroneous thinking.
  • Daypart programming. The Internet allows people to do what they want when they want it. And given the staggering numbers of people who access the Web on-the-job, it's critically important that information providers realize that 'once-a-day' simply can't and won't work. The Internet is 24/7, something smart providers understand completely.
  • Managing audience flow. The audience will manage itself, thank you very much. While I think it's possible to promote upcoming events, etc., it's dangerous to do so DURING the process of serving the user's entertainment or information wants and needs. Always remember rule #1. You, as a provider, are not in charge.
  • Commercial interruptions. I was in broadcasting when we actually used this term. I like it, because it's honest. It speaks the truth about selling on TV. Programming is interrupted for commercials. Attempts to do this on the Internet are ultimately self-defeating, because of rule #1. I'm a strong supporter of Flash ads on the Web, but the extent to which they interrupt the user's experience is a massive turn-off. There are ways to use the technology to create wonderfully effective ads without interfering with the user's experience. The most important person a station should hire is the top Flash person in the market to work with the sales department in creating such ads.
  • Homogeneity of product. What's slowly killing television news would kill Internet video news even quicker. Information providers simply must tailor their presentations to be hyper-local, and that includes a deep respect for the personality and tastes of the community being served.
  • People follow people. This is a critical truth for broadcasters to understand. Given its nature and ability to reach mass audiences, broadcasting has done more to create and maintain celebrities than any medium ever created. It's been a symbiotic relationship since broadcasting first came on the scene, but the nature of the Internet means an information provider doesn't need celebrities to provide quality information to users. This is a bitter pill to swallow, but to Internet users, a quick and easy method of getting information is more important than developing a relationship with the people providing the information. I believe there will always be a place for storytellers in the video news business, but the days of the star anchor are surely numbered.
  • More is better. Reach and frequency don't apply, no matter what your mind tells you. You don't need a mass audience to be successful. You merely need to help sponsors sell their products. In fact, the 'more is better' mindset will actually block creative attempts to do business on the Web. This means an entirely new advertising paradigm, but that's the subject of another essay.
  • Captive audience. This one directly relates to rule #1. Broadcasters' processes and procedures are built on the assumption that when a viewer is on their channel, they are - at least for the moment - theirs to serve. Nowhere is this more evident than when stations interrupt programming for news bulletins or weather events. The Internet offers ways to alert users without interrupting their experience, and news providers would be wise to accept that.
For the time being, Internet users are above-average in intelligence. The current television-programming trend of appealing to the lowest common denominator is a recipe for disaster on the Internet. Always remember than the mouse is far more powerful than the remote control.

For the next decade, I believe local TV stations are in the catbird's seat in terms of providing video information conduits via the Internet. People are still watching TV news, although in shrinking numbers. Use your station to drive people to your news Website, where you can build tomorrow's loyal audience. But this unique opportunity won't last forever. Video technology is such that a smart entrepreneur, with modest investment backing, could win the local Internet video news market and undercut the opportunity that exists for broadcasters.

The time for broadcasters to act is now. And never forget. If you want to catch trout, you've got to use trout bait.