A Big 'What If' for Local Broadcast Stations

What if a court overturns "must carry" and simultaneously the broadcast networks move away from the affiliate system to become exclusive content producers for pay television? Under these twin circumstances, how would your television station prosper in the future?
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As we approach NAB2004, I'd like to propose a "what if" question for local broadcast stations. It's a question that will strike many as extremely negative, but one that every broadcast station owner with a survival instinct had better be prepared to answer.

What if a court overturns "must carry" and simultaneously the broadcast networks move away from the affiliate system to become exclusive content producers for pay television? Under these twin circumstances, how would your television station prosper in the future?

Before you say it can't happen, think again. Former FCC chairman William Kennard, who as a young attorney argued the original analog "must-carry" case before the U.S. Supreme Court, can tell you how close that original decision came to not requiring cable operators to carry the signals of all broadcast stations.

In a media environment of endless choices and constantly changing technology, it is dangerous to assume a government policy forcing one media distribution system to re-deliver another will be here forever. It's a thin assumption on which to establish a solid business.

As for the networks, the network-affiliate system was built in an era when the networks needed local stations to distribute their content to homes. That distribution is no longer required in an era when the vast majority of viewers receive their television via cable or satellite providers.

Also, the traditional network economic model no longer works. Sure, the network O&O stations are important money-making local brands. But the networks themselves are fast moving away from being program distributors to becoming "studios" for premium television content.

The income from commercial advertising alone is no longer enough to sustain this level of production. In the future, each network is expected to do what's necessary to generate as many revenue streams as possible for the programs it creates and owns.

GOING IT ALONE

Back to the "what if" question. I expect most will say the future of television stations is rooted in localism. Some will proudly point to their local news programs as examples of how they are already embracing the future. Others will argue that their local news is so good that it serves the public interest and justifies their use of free spectrum.

Now, ask how many of these stations are actually good enough to survive without "must carry" and some network affiliation? How many of these broadcasters offer original local information and entertainment that's so compelling that it would warrant viewers to reacquaint themselves with the basics of antenna installation 101?

Maybe there's a station somewhere, but I can't name it. I find that what passes today as local TV news is mostly fluff without substance--a combination of accidents and police blotter stories combined with vapid "lifestyle" pieces about consumerism and the exaltation of celebrity. The powerful technology that enables live remotes during newscasts is too often reduced to a "stand-up" by a blow-dried talking head in front of a static backdrop.

Since today's local TV newsrooms tend to be made up of 20-somethings, I can't expect these aspiring journalists to know that it wasn't always that way. One only has to go back to the post-Watergate years in the 1970s--after the fall of Nixon--when stations all over the country wanted to create their own Woodwards and Bernsteins.

I was lucky enough in that era to work as an investigative reporter in the newsroom at one of the best--the Washington Post-owned WJXT in Jacksonville, Fla. On my first day of work I was personally greeted by Post publisher Katherine Graham and encouraged to be aggressive and fearless in doing stories that involved powerful members of the community.

Her pep talk came just after the revelation that the Nixon administration had plotted to rescind the Post's TV station licenses due to her newspaper's aggressive reporting of Watergate. Mrs. Graham was in a "take no prisoners" mood. I was told there were no sacred cows and if any emerged, I was to call her directly.

For the next year or so, before being hired away by the Miami Herald, I worked in the best television news operation I've ever experienced. Yes, the news department reported the routine police stuff, but we were encouraged to "follow the money" to report substantive stories of corporate and political corruption, one of which led to the resignation of a U.S. senator.

Never once was I cautioned not to offend an advertiser. If I needed expert help, the station had accountants and lawyers on retainer that we could call at any time. If we had a breaking story, we'd do instant live specials.

After the indictment of a prominent politician, I remember leaving the federal courthouse with a carload of witnesses en route to the studio. Within minutes, we were all hustled onto a set to discuss the case on-the-air. The memory is especially vivid because no anchor was available at the moment and I was thrown in front of the camera live and told "to handle it."

Of course, those freewheeling days ended by the early 1980s. The bean counters took over television. Real investigative reporting was deemed too expensive. Soft, innocuous "lifestyle" content replaced it. The ratings were good, the risks far less, and no one was offended. That's essentially where we are today.

HYPER-LOCALISM

Back to that "what if" question. Since most agree the answer is for a station to become a key brand for local content, this leads to the follow-up question of whether the status quo in local content is good enough.

As you can probably tell, I have my doubts about "news lite." I suspect the viewers might eventually overdose on too much sugar. I'd bet the ultimate winners in local television will specialize in "hyperlocalism," a more sophisticated form of local news and information that goes far beyond today's typical formulaic local newscast.

The reporters in a hyperlocal newsroom would have specialties that provide an expertise in stories important to the station's community. For example, trained environmental experts would serve as reporters in an area threatened with environmental problems.

The hyperlocal newsroom would still have general-interest reporters but would also employ lawyers, accountants, doctors and professional educators to cover their areas of expertise in "beats." Only through routine beat reporting can journalists gain the depth of knowledge to dig out the difficult stories. Serious newspapers learned this long ago. TV's time has come.

Finally, it's time to bring visual storytellers back into the newsroom. Live remotes should tell a story with pictures and be about something, not just a chance for a reporter to perform on camera outside the studio. Using colorful, complex graphics as a visual crutch should be restrained. Compelling images from surveillance cameras and cellphones are better than canned, after-the-fact video of "the scene."

And who said high-definition video and surround sound doesn't matter in news? Of course it does and the first station to use it in a forceful, meaningful way will leap to the top with the deep-pocketed, most influential viewers who have invested in HD sets.

Such ideas, you say, are too expensive. Yes, very expensive, especially if well executed. It would require--as they put it--a paradigm shift in the strategic thinking of the broadcast accounting functionaries. Good people always cost money, and no technology can fully replace them.

But then if your station becomes the number-one information brand in its market, think of the new revenue models emerging for your exclusive content. To modify an old slogan: "It Ain't Just About Television, Anymore!" It's also about DVD, print, Web, syndication and other outlets and services limited only by the imagination.

Each broadcaster will have his or her own answer to our "what if" question. That's the idea. Since none of us really knows how the future of the medium that we now call television is going to play out, we should at least start to think through the scenarios. Those solutions might be needed sooner than we think.