Choosing to preempt broadcast network programming to cover the president’s immigration reform announcement last night demonstrates the commitment and value of local broadcasting to their viewers. The station preemptions — and their tacit repudiations of the networks’ decisions not the cover the speech — demonstrate once again that stations take seriously covering issues they deem important to their viewers, even if it costs some ratings points and the revenue that goes with them or strains relations with the networks.
Good for the TV stations that preempted network programming last night to air President Obama’s speech in which he said he would use the power of the office to stop hassling five million undocumented people and allow them to work legally. It was a hell of speech and a hell of move by a president often criticized by even his backers for timidity.
It made Republicans crazy — “Sic semper tyrannis!” was heard again in the land — and it pushed immigration reform to the top the agenda for the next Congress.
Said Obama: “To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”
The lame duck showed no signs of limping.
Yet, the speech was not important enough for the Big Four networks to bother with. After the president announced his intention to speak for 15 minutes at 8 p.m. ET, the networks said they would not carry it. They would stick with The Big Bang (CBS), The Biggest Loser (NBC), Bones (Fox) and Grey’s Anatomy (ABC).
I hate to second guess the networks. Oh, why not? Yes, the networks should have carried the speech, framing it with their star anchors and reporters. I say that knowing that interested viewers had many options for watching the speech on cable. But the networks are either serious news players or they’re not.
I will excuse NBC, however. The folks running things at the news division are so busy trying to keep the Today Show executives and talent from back-stabbing each other, they probably forgot the speech was happening.
Some affiliates — and even some network O&Os — disagreed with the networks’ decision to stick with the regularly scheduled programming. And so when 8 p.m. rolled around, they flipped the switch from the network to a feed of the speech.
We’ve been trying to get a handle today on which stations carried the speech. We know their ranks include all 25 of the Hearst news-producing stations, three of the five Graham Media stations, all the NBC O&Os, and most of the Gannett stations in the Eastern and Central time zones. We also heard the two Dispatch stations and ABC O&O WLS Chicago went with the speech, but were not able to confirm that by deadline.
(After this column posted, Fox Television Stations called to say all their stations aired the speech. Also, we heard that several Raycom got in on the act, including WAVE Louisville, WBTV Charlotte; WIS Columbia, S.C.; WSFA Montgomery, Ala.; WMC Memphis; KOLD Tucson, Ariz.; KGMB Honolulu; and KPLC Lake Charles, La. If there are any other stations out there that belong in speech group, let me know.)
Given how many of their viewers are directly impacted by the President’s actions, it’s not surprising that the two major Spanish-language broadcast networks — Univision and Telemundo — and all of their O&Os and affiliates opted for the president.
The station preemptions — and their tacit repudiations of the networks’ decision not to cover the speech — demonstrate once again that stations take seriously covering issues they deem important to their viewers, even if it costs some ratings points and the revenue that goes with them or strains relations with the networks.
It’s also important for local broadcasters to flex their editorial muscle every once in the while by showing that they still call the shots, not the networks as many suppose.
“It’s not a battle between us and the networks,” said Graham Media President Emily Barr, whose stations in Houston, Detroit and Jacksonville aired the speech. “We are local stations and we have to do what we believe is important to the local market.”
Hearst Television President Jordan Wertlieb has much the same rationale. “We thought this was an issue of importance — when the president issues an executive order and wants to address the nation — and our local stations are the primary news source of a lot of viewers.”
Dave Lougee, president of Gannett Broadcasting, said he doesn’t believe that the president should get primetime every time he asks, but in this case it was warranted.
Even so, he said, he didn’t dictate that stations carry the speech. “We just gave stations the confidence to say whatever decision they made would be backed.”
Airing the speech was not the only way local broadcasting distinguished themselves this week — and certainly not the toughest.
The toughest was what the stations in Buffalo, N.Y., have been doing all week as their city — their community — confronted a major snow storm and began digging out from under five, six or was it seven feet of snow. Throughout the week, the toll in lives and property has steadily risen. Scripps’ WKBW pegged the death count at 13 at noon today.
To keep the citizenry informed and safe, WKBW and the other news-producing stations preempted much of their network and syndicated programming to make room for the storm coverage and its aftermath.
Buffalo is a continuing story as an expected warm up and rain this weekend is raising fears of flooding. We will have an update on Buffalo next Tuesday.
Buffalo is not unique, of course. There are at least three or four stations in every market in the country prepared to commence wall-to-wall coverage when the big storm hits or, God help us, the shooting starts.
Such service is vital and its value is incalculable.
But in the minds of many Washington policymakers, local broadcast TV isn’t good for much anymore. It’s mostly a vehicle for entertainment programming that you can get on satellite and cable or through a growing number of digital outlets like Netflix and Hulu, they say. And the one thing that TV stations do produce — local news — is little more than a compendium of the day’s crimes, fires and car crashes.
It may be a flawed perception, but even flawed ones have the power to shape laws and regulation.
It’s how we ended up with the FCC’s plan to reallocate a great swath of spectrum from TV to wireless broadband through an incentive auction and it may justify regulatory changes that undermine broadcasters’ ability to negotiate for retransmission consent fees or to implement a badly needed next-gen broadcasting standard.
It’s important to combat the misperceptions wherever they pop up and not just with rhetoric. Actions really count.
So, all broadcasters should be grateful to those who ran the president’s speech last night and those who fought through the snow and ice of Buffalo to capture the images and tell the stories.
Not only did they serve their communities, but their industry as well.