Once a fairly common feature at TV stations, on-air editorial opinions are now very much an endangered species. However, there are still a number of local news operations that recognize the value — and power — of them to be a positive force in their communities.
Where Have All The Editorials Gone?
Every Tuesday and Thursday, WDRB Louisville, Ky., GM Bill Lamb takes to the airwaves, giving his opinions on everything from a local lawyer who refused to pay his parking tickets to the political situation in Turkey.
The 90-second editorials tend to lean right, he says, mostly because they reflect Louisville’s “quite conservative community” and “balance out the newspaper that is flaming liberal.” For Lamb, the slant matters far less than spurring discussion, so much so that he says he’d just as readily “be doing liberal editorials” if he worked in a city like San Francisco.
“I don’t care if people agree or disagree with me … and I think people understand that I’m not trying to change the world,” Lamb says. “All I’m trying to do is get people to discuss what’s happening instead of them being apathetic.”
Lamb is one of the dwindling number of local broadcasters across the country who still believe in on-air editorials.
Once a fairly widespread practice, airing station editorials remained commonplace into the late 1990s, backed by individuals and station groups that believed “in the power of editorials to drive community good,” says RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender. “I saw on the ground the impact that editorials and taking community positions can have. I truly believe that they can make a real difference.”
Cavender says he is unsure why editorials have fallen out of fashion, but suspects it has something to do with station consolidation.
“I have to wonder, as there have been more and more combining of groups into very large broadcast entities, if the individual concern at the local level in any given market is not as strong as it used to be,” he says.
But, due to a range of factors, many broadcasters started killing off the practice over time, industry watchers say.
Tom Bier, GM of Morgan Murphy’s WISC, the CBS affiliate in Madison, Wis. (DMA 85) and a former RTDNA chairman, says during his tenure on the RTDNA board during the 1980s and early ’90s he saw a number of would-be commentators “certainly discouraged from getting involved,” especially as the Fairness Doctrine was being debated.
“That was always held as a big stick over broadcasters, in that you have to watch what you do,” he says.
The most likely explanation for the dearth of editorials is broadcasters’ reluctance to tick off people. It’s just not good for business.
But, at least in his experience, Lamb says that such fears are unfounded.
“We’ve never been sued, and I don’t believe that we’ve ever lost an advertiser or a viewer,” he says. In some cases, editorials rally viewers to participate, he says. About once a month the station airs a rebuttal.
Another believer in editorials is Fox Television Stations. Over the past three years, the O&Os in New York (WNYW), Los Angeles (KTTV), Chicago (WFLD), Washington (WTTG), Atlanta (WAGA) and Detroit (WJBK) have gotten into the act, with guidance from corporate.
Sharri Berg, SVP of the Fox-owned stations’ news operations, says the group encourages commentary “to fill the void” left when print media started scaling back.
But the strategy doesn’t work across the board, Berg says. The six Fox stations currently producing editorials have been chosen to do so because they are located in particularly meaty news markets and are headed by GMs who have the drive (and on-air presence) required for them to be successful, she says.
It’s up to the individual GMs to decide which topics to cover and how frequently to air the editorials, she adds.
Scripps leaves the decision of whether to air editorials up to each station. Right now, only two of the company’s 19 stations have chosen to do so.
WXYZ, Scripps’ ABC affiliate in Detroit (DMA 11) has a long history of airing editorials on and off since the 1960s, says Editorial Director Chuck Stokes. After a year-long hiatus, the station is resuming the practice this summer. WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce, Fla. (DMA 38), is the other.
Brian Lawlor, Scripps’s VP of television, says he advises stations to get involved in editorials only if they really have something to say. “What we don’t want to do is waste people’s time. So if there’s nothing to say, seeing the GM pontificate doesn’t create great value.”
Raycom Media is well known for its on-air editorial policy. It requires all of its GMs to air two different editorials each week, a community outreach effort that’s been in place for more than a decade, according to Bill Cathcart, GM of WTOC Savannah, Ga.
Raycom group executives could not be reached for comment on this story.
Often, the impetus to do editorials comes from the stations up rather that the group down.
One local proponent is Joe Heston, the GM of Hearst Television’s NBC affiliate KSBW in Monterey-Salinas, Calif. (DMA 125). He recalls being a kid in the late 1950’s, calling out to his dad that “the old guy is on TV” when WBAL Baltimore broke for commentaries.
“This is not some grand concept,” says Heston, who each week appears in just one editorial but runs it seven times from Friday night to Monday morning. “I really believe it is part of the engagement of a leading news organization.”
Heston maintains viewers are listening. It is not unusual to get scores of calls following an editorial, some of which are aired, he says.
“We’ve been called right, left and crazy. We have been called communists. We have been called fascists,” Heston says. “It certainly makes you think we must be doing something right.”
WISC Madison, Wis., has created one of the most prolific, and possibly influential, editorial operations around. Backed by a nine-member editorial board, WISC Editorial Director Neil Heinen writes and presents five different commentaries a week, each of which airs three times a day Sunday through Thursday.
GM Bier says WISC “is on equal standing with the editorial board of the paper in town [the Wisconsin State Journal],” which shows in the increased interactions between the station and community leaders, from all of Wisconsin’s recent governors to the area’s congressional delegation. Just last month, local state legislators requested a meeting with WISC to explain their opposition to the state budget.
“The whole idea is about getting people into the building and talking about issues,” Bier says. “You really develop a better relationship with people in your community.”
Bier says WISC takes its editorials seriously (“they are not wishy-washy”) and says other local broadcasters need to do the same to have credibility.
“If you’re going to make that leap, you want to make sure you have something to say,” he says. “It’s easy to give an opinion when you’re out at dinner with someone, but it’s different when you go on-air and have thousands watching.”
Cavender says he wishes “there would be a resurgence,” particularly as digital media have made it possible for all sorts of people to weigh in as experts.
“It’s unfortunate that, at least in the electronic arena, there has been a significant decline in this arena,” Cavender says, especially since “everyone [on the Internet] is seemingly commenting on this story or that issue.
“It seems to me that the well-crafted, local position on issues of community importance certainly still could, and should, have a place on TV.”