The FCC’s Push For Localism
April 9, 2008
Last summer and fall, the FCC held a number of hearings across the country on the proposed cross-ownership rule changes and the effect they will have on localism—the ability of the local voice to be heard, as well as the ability of more than one voice to be heard in the community. The FCC originally granted licenses to broadcasters to serve the public interest. The question is, whose definition are they going to listen to? I’m not here on a soapbox; I am just trying to point out that we as broadcasters have an obligation, actually a mandate to serve the public interest. What amazes me is that we continue to try to avoid the topic claiming we are serving the public with our newscasts, our HD newscasts in fact, and with our helicopters and our Webcasts. I agree that competition is fierce for media eyes and dollars and that costs are rising, but we continue to operate in the same basic ways we have for many years. We know so much about how to do it right, yet we in many ways are afraid to make change. Yes I know—union rules, Q ratings, we have great anchors, etc. But we haven’t changed the way we produce our newscasts in many years.
I was one of the people who helped launch NY1 News and I’ll concede upfront that we had no pre-existing infrastructures, unions, work rules and business models. What we had was a simple mandate—provide Time Warner Cable’s viewers in the five boroughs with better news coverage. That meant going beyond the rapes, murders and sensational stories to provide comprehensive coverage, but do it with about 100 people. Most would have said impossible.
The team that was assembled was Paul Sagan, Steve Paulus, Steven Georges and myself. Paul, Steve and Steven were all veteran news people from WCBS and CBS. Paul Sagan said he chose me because I had never done news before, so I didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas of how to do things (“bad habits” as he called it). My experience consisted of operations and engineering but mostly for startups.
HOW WE DID IT
Although the task seemed a little daunting, we basically lived by the following:
We spent four months looking at the best ways to produce compelling and hyper local content. We started with workflow not technology. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we could give more control to the producers so we could put more resources into editorial.
- What do we want to produce? What do we want the viewer to see?
- What’s the best way to do that?
- It’s good enough! (High 8 produced great pictures and was very cost effective.)
- If that’s just the way we’ve always done it, unless there is a good reason, find a better way.
As many of you know, we broke a lot of the “rules.” We had reporters shoot their own stories, taught everyone on the assignment desk (most of whom were fresh out of J-school) how to shoot and ask questions. Since a lot of our content was VOs and SOTs, we needed a lot of B-roll and interviews. Why not send people out on the street that knew how to be journalists and teach them the basics about shooting? After all, it’s all about content.
We did other things like linking the show rundowns (wheels) to the automation system so that the producers could drive air and the MC operator was there for quality control. We eventually allowed writers and producers to create lower thirds and basic graphics. Our weather was maps, animations and graphics with anchor VO. The point was we conveyed the information as straight forward as possible. I called it “just the facts” journalism.
I am amazed at how we continue to hide behind the “we’ve always done it that way” banner. There are so many opportunities to innovate. Here are a few of my ideas:
While everyone looked at this as a revenue opportunity, I looked it as a way of layering an IP infrastructure over a broadcast signal. You could do true IP multicasts and deliver content to IP devices and since it’s over the air and free, the FCC would be happy. Imagine if we had a way to send podcasts over our air to everyone’s iPod. You could provide a number of podcasts on varying topics. Viewers would get more choice and could view it when they want it.
Yes, I know DVB-H is happening and providing a similar service. The difference is that the public has to pay for it and the FCC doesn’t like that. More importantly, your viewers don’t want to pay more.
Also, I know that there is more to it in terms of the technology and actually deploying it but my point is that it’s possible, it could provide differentiated content and it’s good enough.
I know that many of you have partnerships with local newspapers to provide some content, probably mostly lifestyle pieces. However, in news what matters are bodies on the street and who has more of them than newspapers. If we sat down with the local newspaper (doesn’t necessarily have to be the largest) and said: What’s possible? How can we help each other out? Could we give the reporter’s consumer grade HDV cameras (we’d be in HD) and wireless cards so that they could do breaking news? MPEG-4 or VC1 at 1 Mbps looks really good or take a look at Streambox. Again, my point is that it’s possible and it’s good enough.
OK, I know that what I am suggesting is not anything “groundbreaking” in terms of technology. My larger point is that we need to stop doing business as usual. We need to re-examine every part of our business and ask what the goal is. Senior and corporate management needs to stop looking at only short term gains and instead should focus on what’s the long term goal—stay in business.
Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have the ability to seriously disrupt our world. Google is an active participant in the 700 MHz spectrum auction. The rumor is that they are going to roll out a free WiMax network. Game over. Free access to the Internet. Also, Google is rumored to be building a content factory somewhere on the East Coast. Yes, I know, what do they know about journalism? About as much as they know about advertising and look how they are changing that landscape.
It’s possible and it’s good enough.