Too Much Local News?
No matter how you chose to watch Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral procession, and don’t say you didn’t because we all know you did, one thing is for certain: You probably watched it on a local station or a linear cable network.
You might have watched the coverage live, you might have set your DVR, you might have even chosen an app, but however you watched, the original source was likely one of the traditional networks.
Television’s ability to cover major news events, be they celebration or disaster, is a baseline competency so strongly developed we take it for granted. Like running water, we assume it will always be there when needed. This is especially true for local television.
Serving as an informer, a beacon, and a positive force, not only during big events but also in daily newscasts, is one of over-the-air television’s most critical roles. No other medium has the power to impact society in such a profound way.
This ability to bring people together around common interests is also a window into the future of local stations.
Earlier this year, a prominent industry leader told me that he expects most entertainment programming will eventually move to the on-demand world of streaming. As that happens, he also expects over-the-air television to become more oriented toward information, big events and live programming. He is already being proven right.
Because the streaming world is unhampered by licenses or other government regulations, there is no appetite to invest in news, public affairs or anything else that does not fit smoothly into the on-demand model. That means all investment can be directed toward entertainment product.
The first sign of this new world came in February when Viacom changed its name to Paramount. In its official announcement, the new company detailed a broad range of programming with one notable exception: CBS News was not mentioned.
There have been many signs since then, the latest being Comcast’s decision to cut $1 billion out of NBC to fund greater program development for Peacock. We are not told what this will mean to NBC News.
Meanwhile, the syndication market is becoming an afterthought. With Hollywood desperate to fill the demand for new streaming series, it seems unlikely syndication will be a priority anytime soon.
As a result, when Ellen DeGeneres ended her long syndication run earlier this month there was no obvious new show to take her place. That lack of fresh programming is one reason so many stations launched 4 p.m. newscasts in Ellen’s former slot.
Those newscasts were not first to the time period. That happened back in 2011 when Oprah Winfrey exited. In fact, local news has been expanding in all time periods for the past two decades.
There are now so many hours of morning and afternoon news, one wonders how close we are to saturation. If the networks choose to cut back primetime, as NBC has suggested, even more local news will be added.
The best station owners understand that to make this work, they will have to broaden their offerings beyond countless hours of the same thing. Other companies will choose the easier and cheaper route of expanding hours by simply repeating their current product. The question then becomes “How much local news is too much?” I don’t know, but we are going to find out.
Once we reach over-saturation of news programming, weaker television stations will starve because oversupply always results in lower pricing. The only way to fix that problem is to decrease supply. Think about that for a minute: How do you decrease the supply of news inventory in a market? The only way I can think of is for some stations to exit the news business. If this happens, it will be because of economic necessity, not by choice.
No one has a crystal ball, but we are moving quickly into a new era of television that will be very different from what we all grew up with, and thanks to the explosion of streaming it is happening faster than anyone expected. Syndication will still play a part in the new era, but local programming and local events will expand to become even more important than they are now.
The good news is that leading companies will have the opportunity to literally reinvent local television. On the other hand, last place stations might want to start thinking about alternate business models.
As I’ve said before, the future will bring big winners and big losers. With consumer churn at an all-time high and advertising facing a flat year at best in 2023, we may see those winners and losers much sooner than anyone imagined.
Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, Leading Local Television, has become a standard text for television general managers. In a 30-year general management career, Price led TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/Winston Salem, N.C. Earlier, he was a consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. He is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.