NBC O&Os and affiliates are worried that they willl lose audience if the new Leno show bombs this week. But instead of worrying about lead-ins, they and every other station ought to be figuring out that they can do to improve their newscasts and make viewers want to stay up late. If stations can’t advance the stories, they should at least freshen them up or seek a local angle.
Tonight’s the night when NBC breaks new primetime ground with its launch of Jay Leno at 10 o’clock.
If he succeeds, GMs and news directors at NBC affiliates will likely be chortling.
Who could blame them? Leno would deliver some solid lead-in numbers straight to the affiliates’ doorsteps, and into their latenight newscasts.
Of course, it can always go the other way. Jay bombs and viewers lunge for their remotes.
Whichever way it goes, my advice to station management is don’t blame him for your soft news numbers at 11.
It’s time for management — and not just at NBC stations — to stop using the lead-in as an excuse for viewer apathy and lousy news numbers. It’s time to take responsibility, to make an honest appraisal of what’s actually being aired 11.
You’re doing it to yourself, the “it” being the overall slide in late news viewership.
Jim Willi, SVP at the Dallas-based consultant AR&D, tells me late news viewing has eroded about 20 to 30 percent over the past five years. “The lead-in can get viewers to your newscast, but, if you don’t give them a reason for sticking around in the first half-minute, they’ll go. They are poised with their finger over the off button or to switch to another channel.”
Leno kicks off tonight’s show with Jerry Seinfeld. It’s hard to miss with a lead-off guest like that. If you combine Seinfeld’s star power with the basic curiosity factor, the tune-in should make for some good numbers. So, NBC affiliates will likely be happy campers Tuesday morning.
But the question is whether the ratings will follow Leno into the local newscasts, not tonight, but for the many moons to come.
Don’t get me wrong. The size of the lead-in audience does matter. But in our fractured media world, fresh content matters. And it matters like never before in the late news.
I wonder how many producers, news directors or general managers ask themselves: Is my late newscast relevant to my viewers’ lives? For most station management — if they answer the question honestly — I think the answer would be no.
At one time we approached late newscasts as putting a cap on the day. Wrap up the day. Tuck them in. And then show them there’s a tomorrow.
Those days are over.
In today’s digital world, it’s more like, what’s happening now. You can forget about the 24-hour news cycle. We live in an hourly news churn from cable channels to Twitter to Facebook, Hulu, Sirius/XM and on and on.
The 11 p.m. newscast isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a finished product. Consider it a work in progress.
How many times have you seen or heard the same story repeated over and over throughout the day until it winds up in some tired, matter-of-fact form at 11?
“Viewers come to a late newscast with news baggage,” says Willi. “They have information on most of the local and national news from the Internet, text alerts, mobile devices, friends, etc. They want to know what’s new with the story.”
But are we telling them what’s new at 11?
Last week in TVNewsCheck, guest columnist Paul Greeley played an interesting “what if” game with news marketing: What If News Promos Had To Show An ROI?
Paul’s piece gave me an idea: What if I watch an NBC station and follow the lead-in straight into the late newscast? What’s my ROI, as a viewer, if I invest the time?
Here’s a sample of what I got last week from my investment watching NBC’s New York flagship, WNBC.
On the night of President Obama’s address to Congress and the nation on the health care crisis, I watched NBC’s coverage at 8 and followed the program flow straight into WNBC’s newscast at 11.
What did I get?
At the top, it was a lengthy report out of Washington, a total rehash of President Obama’s address and the Republican response. No local angle. No local impact.
Didn’t someone ask: Were New Yorkers convinced by Obama’s speech? Wasn’t there something out of President’s speech, some angle to the health care story that could be localized? Nope. Not that night.
The White House, by the way, had announced — a full week in advance — that Obama would be making his health care pitch. Planning!
Also in that same newscast — let me count the ways — I saw stories that I had seen or heard much earlier in the day:
Audio recordings of Bernie Madoff’s reflections on fooling the SEC, first heard on CNBC and aired elsewhere throughout the news day.
Video of Bernie’s New York penthouse and other property up for sale. Seen repeatedly on different outlets.
The Mexican highjack story. The cable channels all had extended coverage in the afternoon.
The debate between the two officials who are competing in the Democratic primary for the right to take on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in November. WABC carried the debate live earlier in the evening.
The potential default risk of Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town, a story published in the New York Times and aired elsewhere throughout the day.
Then there was the second half of the newscast with its share of material repeated from earlier in the day, from the Cronkite memorial to a quick look at photographs from the Hubble Telescope.
I might add that the newscast was back-loaded with a boatload of commercials, and had the obligatory (marketing?) piece about Leno coming to NBC prime. The inspiration for the “story” was Leno’s new set.
OK, to be fair to WNBC, the newscast had a few fresh elements. Interestingly enough, sports actually saw the light of day with a live shot on Derek Jeter tying Lou Gehrig’s Yankee record for most career hits.
And there are always important stories that bear repeating. Always. But, can’t you please, at the very least just freshen them up? Forget advancing the stories.
Unfortunately, WNBC is not alone in regurgitating the same stuff at 11, using the same tired late news model. It’s time to come up with — experiment with — some new approaches to the late newscasts.
“I have been on a crusade with my clients to update their late newscasts — to offer fresh information, fresh leads, etc.” says Willi. “Unfortunately, I think few stations in any market truly offers an updated newscast.”
So what about me, the viewer? What’s my ROI for watching the late newscasts?
Joan Rivers, once a regular on the Tonight Show, was asked by an interviewer from BettyConfidential.com, what she thought of Leno’s move from late night to prime. “I think he will put America to sleep even earlier,” she said. “And that’s good because it will save power and light.”
Good thought. Until things at stations change, save energy, switch off the late news.
Tom Petner is an award-winning journalist and former local TV news and Internet executive. Most recently, he was editor of the broadcast industry newsletter, ShopTalk, and director of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University. His column, Air Check, is all about local TV news and appears every other Monday in TVNewsCheck. He invites comment and ideas. He can be reached at [email protected].