If TV stations want to attract audiences younger than 50, they need to stop delivering the news as if from atop a mountain. Get rid of all the trappings of omnipotence.The Internet has leveled (or at least lowered) the playing field and viewers no longer want to be talked down to. They have a lot more options now when they want information.
The last thing local TV news needs is another critic. Too bad. Here I go.
The problem with local TV news is that it is a one-way service in a two-way world.
By that, I mean newscasts featuring sparkling anchors behind massive desks are based on the ancient faith that media are the gate keepers of all knowledge and that knowledge flows in just one direction.
The high priests of news hand down information to the masses. They are the givers. You are the mere consumers. You take what you get.
The voice-of-god approach evolved early in radio and worked wonderfully in broadcasting and then in cable for three-quarters of a century.
Walter Cronkite was, of course, the master practitioner. Until his last day as anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1981, he spoke with absolute authority. “And that’s the way it is,” he would say at the end of each newscast. No one doubted it.
Reports today say that Cronkite, now 92, is gravely ill. If so, I hope he bounces back to continue his long second career as elder news statesman and TV personality.
But just as Gutenberg’s printing press broke the Roman Catholic church’s grip on Christianity in the 15th century, the Internet has revoked old media’s exclusive license to news.
Anybody with a computer and Internet connection can see where the news comes from, how it is made, how it flows and how it is spun.
Those so inclined also see how they can be part of it. You don’t need any credentials or special knowledge to be a reporter. Bloggers abound, many actually worth your time.
This Internet-savvy crowd is still interested in what others consider news and appreciate those who aggressively seek it out as many newspapers and TV stations still do. But they no longer want to be talked down to.
In his interview with us this week, former CBS News President Andy Heyward says that the “show business conventions” of local news are intended to create an aura of credibility, but what they are really doing now is pushing young people away.
“The big desks and the lighting and the deep voices and the perfect grooming and the ritualistic ersatz relationships among the anchor team and so on — all of those now are going to be seen ironically by the next generation of consumers,” he says.
I’ll second that.
Local TV news has got to change if it intends to serve the next generation. Instead of top down, think peer to peer. The newscast should feel like an exchange of information.
This is not easy to do in broadcasting, which is, after all, a one-way medium. But stations can invite viewers to participate by phone, by e-mail, by texting, whatever. Some stations have already begun to do a little of this. All should do it more.
It would also help if TV stations would readily admit their mistakes as newspapers routinely do. Apologize even for mispronunciations and misspellings when you discover them later. It’s a show of respect.
News is also a 24-hour world. Stations, particularly those that intend to be factors on the Web, must have editors on duty day and night, ones who are willing to pick up the phone at any hour. Being there all the time brings you closer to the audience.
As Heyward suggested, the newscast must also shed some of the trappings that put distance between the anchors and younger viewers. Do newsrooms have to look like the bridge of a spaceship in a summer sci-fi movie? Do anchors really still have to wear suits?
Let them wear what they wear and maybe they will able to relate better to an audience that is most comfortable in a T-shirt and jeans, maybe their real personalities will emerge and they’ll show they can do more than look good and read well.
More important, stations need to make substantive changes in what they cover. The roundup of crime stories before the weather isn’t going to cut it anymore.
You’ve heard it before, but I’ll let Heyward say it again: With all the competition they now face, broadcasters can no longer judge themselves solely on how they rank among the other two or three broadcasters in town, he says in a portion of the interview we didn’t publish.
“They have to measure themselves against a broader standard of service to the community. I don’t mean community service. I mean journalistic service to the community. I’m talking about breaking stories and giving people information they need to lead their lives and be good citizens.”
These ideas are not for every station, and many feel no compulsion to change. People like the news just the way it is, some GMs and NDs say. The focus groups and consultants say so, and we’re doing OK in the ratings.
So, if you’re a station not interested in reaching audiences under 50, keep on doing what you are doing. You should be able to continue riding that high horse for a few more years.
But, inevitably, as Heyward also says, such stations are “increasingly going to find themselves speaking to the less sophisticated populations and those are obviously the segments that advertisers don’t covet.”
And advertisers don’t pay for audience they don’t covet.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck.com. He can be contacted at [email protected].