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It’s Always Something

Never has the local TV business been more of a moving target than it is now. The federal government wants its spectrum back. Networks have reversed the affiliate-fee model, are taking a cut of retransmission revenues and getting ready to demand something for Mobile DTV rights. Now the latest Pew research on media consumption contains a red flag, even though prima facie, it seems to validate local broadcasting.

Pew’s survey of 2,259 people indicated that local TV was their platform of choice to get news; 78 percent watched news on a local station. Most, however, used multiple delivery platforms—radio, newspapers, TV and the Internet. There’s nothing too surprising about that. Almost everyone I talk to about watching TV is simultaneously online, looking up terms, products, reference, schedules, etc. And Pew didn’t drill into temporal data, but I’m guessing there’s a radio time of day—probably morning; and a TV time of day later on.

So multiplatform use alone is not the caveat in the Pew Research. The correlative age breakdown is.

People who consume the most news were 65 or older. That’s logical to a degree, because we can assume they’re retired and have the time. The next highest-used group was the 50-to-64s who aren’t out there running half-marathons after work anymore. Etc., etc., goes consumption downward with age.

The pattern is similar for platform usage. Older demos rely on local TV more for news. Younger ones go online. Local TV users tended to be African American, female and 65 or older.

“By comparison,” Pew’s results stated, “those who are Internet users and those who have a cellphone but no landline are less likely to get local TV news on a typical day than non-Internet users and those who have a landline phone.”

Ars Technica wrote in December that 700,000 landlines are being dropped every month, and that 22 percent of U.S. households had “cut the cord.” The nexus of trends here suggests a shelf live for local TV, unless it pulls a meaningful reinvention. Local news still looks like it did when I was 12 and we were hammering Clovis points.

It’s a news/weather/sports wheel with two earnestly coifed, genetically selected anchors behind some polyvinyl deskage; one smart-alecky sports guy and a slightly deranged meteorologist. And yes, what bleeds, leads, but people watch the news precisely to know where the wackos are hitting and where traffic is piled up behind people formerly driving badly. There will always be an appetite for local information, but local TV’s delivery format needs a makeover.

That’s admittedly a tall order because messing with what people are used to can backfire in that New Coke kind of way. But doing nothing also appears to be certain death. Local stations need to adopt a product approach and funnel some of their capital outlay into research and development. It’s time to ask people what they want rather than assume from platform usage trends that they’re already getting it.

-- Deborah D. McAdams