The Price Point | Broadcasting In The Public Interest
How much simpler things were during the Clinton impeachment. No multiplexed channels, no smart phones, no streaming of any kind. Just good old analog television with its 4×3 format that Thomas Edison decreed way back in 1893 when he arbitrarily decided motion picture film frames should be one inch high by three-quarters of an inch wide.
Decisions were easier too. Stations carried gavel-to-gavel coverage. A few people watched the impeachment on cable news, but most turned to their local television stations. Whether they watched it over the air or on cable, viewers expected straight coverage, no opinions thanks. That was a simpler time too.
We’ve heard much about how few people have been watching the current dog and pony show, but a look back at the Clinton impeachment shows, perhaps surprisingly, the same thing. There was one controversial decision. Coverage of the 1998 impeachment vote was complicated by what CBS called a “contractual obligation” to carry a Jets-Bills football game. Over 12 million viewers chose to watch the NFL, more than all impeachment viewers combined. CBS’s NFL advertisers got the deal of a lifetime.
The contrast between Clinton and Trump comes down to one thing — you cannot escape the Trump impeachment. Even complete avoiders of the uncountable streams find themselves bombarded with breathless bulletins, social media comments and other intrusions from expert pundits, all fighting to be heard.
Facing this overwhelming information dump, combined with loss of regular programming and revenue, marginal ratings, and even viewer complaints, more than one television station general manager has asked if they should be carrying live coverage of the Trump impeachment at all.
It is during times like this that we must remember why local over-the-air television is fundamentally different from cable, OTT and all the rest. We are not just businesses. We are stewards of the public trust, operating on the public airways. Our service is free to anyone with an antenna. If viewers choose to pay to watch us on satellite, cable or OTT, then great, but no one is required to do that.
During news events of great public interest, public emergencies, severe weather and all the rest, we never ask how many people are watching. Our job is to provide service to everyone. Watching, or not, is their decision.
The wonderful thing about our current technical system is that we have multiple channels. Individual stations have been making their own decisions as to which portions of coverage should be carried on their main channels, and which on a secondary. In some cases, regular programming is moved to the secondary, which can also be a great option for viewers.
There is also a second reason to carry coverage. Is a station in the news business or not? We know one of the few things that can change viewer preference is outstanding coverage of a major event, so pure self-interest also comes into play. I would argue that long term self-interest — furthering the bond with viewers — is far more valuable than any temporary loss of revenue.
Perhaps today’s decisions are not so complicated after all.
Hank Price is a media consultant, author and speaker. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a handbook for general managers. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.