Now’s The Time For The Newscast Of The Future
Years ago, when I worked for Frank N. Magid Associates, Frank had a continuing project called “the newscast of the future.” It eventually became an inside joke because we all knew that none of our clients actually wanted a newscast of the future.
Newscasts had become so regimented, so carefully choreographed, that first-place stations were fearful any major change would cause viewers to become uncomfortable and turn somewhere else. There was simply too much to lose. I began to call this the inverse relationship between profitability and risk. The higher the profitability, the less appetite for risk.
Even last place stations could make a lot of money in those days, so their appetite for change was also limited. They wanted to produce a “better” newscast than the leader. Thus bells, whistles and all the other things we do today were added, then countered, until all stations looked pretty much alike.
As time went on, most markets settled into the ratings patterns we see today, one where relative station positions have become fixed. That is a good thing if you are in first place, but a looming disaster if you are a poor fourth. Simply trying to do a better job than the leader is a model that stopped working long ago.
As we look to 2022, it’s amazing to think how little has changed. Sure, mobile, digital and many of the other things we do today look different, but the basic proposition is still the same. Stations compete against other stations using conventional newscasts, even though the world around us has morphed into something very different.
From decisionmaking power moving to end users, to fresh competitors springing up every day, to the networks’ new love affair with streaming, we now live in a consumer-driven society where audiences are constantly fragmented, making last place no longer a safe haven. One way or another, it looks like we are close to a time when the local news herd is finally going to thin.
Ideally, this means stations would consolidate within their markets, but that rule change seems unlikely under the current administration. Could it be that some will exit the news business, or perhaps job their newscasts out to a competitor, possibly by allowing the competitor to sell advertising in both newscasts? There are other scenarios, but all involve fewer stations producing local news.
If you are a dominant No. 1 station, then your best route might be to hold the course and continue to improve your product, knowing your on-air newscasts are the key to everything else. Even with an aging audience, if you dominate conventionally then your digital products become a pathway to younger users as well as a ramp to NextGen TV. Don’t believe me? Try launching a local news or weather app without the resources and promotion of a major television station.
But if you are in last place, now might finally be the time to figure out the newscast of the future.
If I were creating a new kind of newscast, I would begin by recognizing that people who want to watch conventional newscasts are well satisfied, so more of the same gets you nothing. It’s hard to not be choked by tradition, but this is an opportunity to open our minds.
Next, I’d rid myself of the gatekeeper mentality that says only we get to decide what is and isn’t news. I would recognize that while consumers trust local television more than other media these days, they trust their friends even more. Those same consumers, especially the younger ones, are also capable of intense loyalty to brands they love.
Now that we’ve adjusted our thinking, it’s time to answer the big question: What must we do to create a different kind of video-based information brand that a major segment of consumers will love? There are no easy answers, but here is one idea.
What if you were to empower information consumers of all ages, especially the younger ones, to become part of the process? Not to just comment or send in videos, but to produce actual stories? Shoot the video, flip the camera on themselves and let a robot edit it. Imagine if you could get 100 consumers to do this? Or 1,000 or 10,000? What if you empowered every consumer who owns a smartphone?
Imagine if you could get local people to cover every school board meeting, every car wreck, every bit of news in their world? What if you could curate all of this in real time on a live app, creating a vast trove of on-demand information? You would have more local content than any newspaper ever dreamed of — all provided by people you didn’t have to pay.
What if you ended up with both a digital product and a constantly streaming flow of local information delivered by television, app or whatever new technology came along? Who needs a network if you have a large, intensely loyal, local audience? Sure, there would be mistakes, but they would be quickly corrected, which would enhance your credibility because news consumers still value a trustworthy independent arbiter. Part of your curation role would be to also insure such a revolutionary product did not become the wild west.
Creating such a product would be hard, but that’s the beauty of it. At the start, competitors would ridicule you, but once you succeeded, they would find it too hard to copy. Success would also require strong planning, realignment of resources and a long-term commitment, but think what would happen if you succeeded?
What if you owned it? What would it be worth?
You may have a better idea than mine. If so, I hope you try it and I hope it succeeds, because this might finally the time to reap the rewards of a much larger world of local news and information than the one we live in now.
Call me crazy, but it sounds like fun.
Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a guide to leadership for television general managers, as well as those who aspire to top leadership. Price spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis, as well as three other stations. Earlier, he was a consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates. Price 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. He is the author of two other books.