Driving TV NewsRatings :

Breakdown to Breakthrough!

August 26, 2018

Pretend you are driving a late model car. It is made by Local News Manufacturing. You were in the fast lane. And now, the car keeps breaking down. Logic would say it needs some work.  The issue is local news needs a big rebuild. Ratings are shrinking and margins are slowly evaporating, all because viewers are not watching.

Now there are many sources for news. They are accessible at the viewers' discretion on multiple devices, but that's not the issue. The problem is our industry comes up with a myriad of excuses for not doing what needs to be done. And what is needed is original reporting. Since leadership starts at the top, that is where the change must begin.

I have heard many excuses for the industry’s failures.

  • There is a resource shortage. We can’t afford to hire more people. So, we will just rehash the same old news. Experience tells me that most managers at every level do not even know how resources are being used, or the real keys to greater productivity.

 

ü  How many managers have done productivity studies? When I first got to WABC, crews were producing about 1.4 stories in a shift. That was, and still is, unacceptable. One year later, that number was 2.57. The average reporter turned two packages. It is important to note that no one was asked to work harder. They just started working smarter. A lot of that came from how the Managing Editor juggled crews and workloads.

ü  If you want to attain greater output, do a similar study, and then TALK TO THE PEOLE DOING THE WORK. They don’t sit in an office. They have real hands-on experience.

 

  • Then there is the excuse that, even at maximum efficiency, our people can only do so much. I agree. But rather than have them repackage stale stories, insist that they do new and original reports. The viewers already know the news before they get to a newscast. So why wouldn’t you report on something they have not seen? The best part is the bean counters will not notice one dime in cost increases.
  • Then there is my favorite line, “We’re doing okay.” Unless you dominate the market, you are an underperformer. Period! There is always room for growth, and unless you are moving forward, you are going backwards. Last week CNBC said that the average Fortune 500 CEO only lasts 5 years. Why? They are not driving the price of the company’s stock. We must drive ratings in today’s challenging market.

The reality is that great growth in linear TV is possible. However, we must start thinking differently. That will require all of us to take well-calculated risks. No risk….no reward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Move Forward and Prosper

Stay Stuck and Pay the Price 

August 12, 2018

 

My last several blogs explained the need for original stories in every newscast. That was confirmed again, in a series of focus groups I moderated two weeks ago. Each member of the group said they already knew all of the headlines before news time. That often led to a decision NOT to watch. I wanted to know what would encourage them to view a linear newscast. The vast majority said they wanted in-depth reports. Human interest stories were a distant second. As an industry, we have known this for years, but done nothing.

 

The client believed that creating a significant amount of original content would be easy. I kept thinking, “If it were that easy, why you haven’t done it?”

 

Think about it. There is no incremental cost. Reporters just need to cover stories that are not predictable. They do NOT need to cover MORE stories. They need to develop a knack for producing ENGAGING stories. Sounds easy, right?

 

But, obstacles abound:

  • Leaders have to lead. Enterprise reporting requires a 100% commitment from the top.
  • To go from covering the day’s police blotter and media release news to enterprise journalism requires a culture shift in the newsroom. Leaders should recognize:

*      If you change what your staff knows, you will change how they think.

*      If you change how they think, you will change how they act.

*      If you change how they act, you will change the culture.

 

  • Does your team really understand what is happening to the linear TV’s bottom line? How many of them really think their salaries may fall because of declining sales revenue? Have you done your part to make sure they know today’s reality?   Change the culture, and then work on your style of original reporting.
  • Here are some examples:

*      Forget details of President Trump’s tariff war with China. Start where the viewers start. What does the tariff mean to me? Do the viewers face higher prices, or better job opportunities in their communities? Oh, and by the way, what is going to happen to all of the tariffs we collect? The President has called for a wall on our southern border. He claims the wall will be quite nice. Are the tariffs paying for the wall, or are the potholes on my city’s streets getting fixed? We, local as journalists, can provide LOCAL answers.

*      Let’s stay on potholes. What does it takes to fix a mile’s worth of road in Cleveland versus Detroit versus Pittsburgh? What is the reason for any difference?

*      Back to the wall and illegal border crossings: Mexicans are going to Canada, but the US is short staffed on its northern border. That means that illegals are also coming in. What is the impact on border cities like Buffalo and Detroit? Spend some time with ICE, and find out who is crossing the northern border illegally.

*      I recently heard an Air Force General on the west coast say that half of his F-16s would not fly, because of a lack of parts. It got me thinking about how many of the mechanics at the Air Force reserve base near Buffalo don’t have much to do.

 

The point of all of this is you must get people think about how to create original reports. It is the only way you will bring people back to local news. The alternative is not pretty,

 

 

e rest of the content goes here.

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How to Overlook Television's

Best Candidates

July 29, 2018

The last brainless HR idea on our list is the idea that you can hire great people by treating them like dirt, subjecting them to insulting online application forms and then using a keyword-searching algorithm to screen resumes for you. Employers who can’t evolve beyond Applicant Tracking Systems and keyword-based resume screening will lose out on the best talent — just as the laws of supply and demand predict.

It’s a new day in the workplace. Smart and capable people are in demand, but only if they know their own value!

                                                                                                -Liz Ryan, Forbes

 

In my opinion, internal media recruiters have an impossible job. They are hampered by key word searches and time. Most recruiters spend 6 seconds with a resume. Many never even read your cover letter. Most have never been in a position that was remotely similar to the one they must fill and, for the most part, they are underpaid. The result is that many times the best candidates are never seen by the hiring manager.

 

Wow! That would work really well in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB. You would end with a college-like team that could write, but not play in the pros.

 

Think about it for a moment. The best candidates have unusual traits that don’t conform to norms. Let me give you an example: Many years ago when I was News Director at WABC, Channel 7 was never beaten on breaking news. I take no credit for that. The people who were responsible were there before I was. The assignment desk dispatched a crew based on a tip, or on what was heard on the police scanners. This was done BEFORE anyone called to verify that what they heard on the scanner was true. In several instances, our crew arrived at an active scene before the police or fire department. Sometimes that gamble cost us a good story, because the crew was reassigned to what turned out to be a non-story. However, most of the time we were live a good 15 minutes before our competitors. That is called risk taking, and it takes guts. The biggest gamble I saw anyone take is when the Senior Executive Producer heard on a scanner that a train failed to stop and crashed into the terminal at Penn Station. He calmly got on the radio, and pulled every crew from its story, and headed all 14 of them in live vans towards Penn Station. As minutes ticked by, he started redirecting some crews to hospitals, and others to where we knew that traffic would come to a halt. The time was 3:30 PM. The crews that had been reassigned were working on stories for the station’s 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM newscasts. I asked our Executive Producer how he intended to fill two hours if the initial police radio transmission turned out to be wrong. He replied, “I will figure it out.” That is called confidence, and I had complete confidence in my team. They were the best. As it turned out, a train had crashed. There were multiple fatalities. ABC7 was live from 3 locations for 30 minutes before anyone else got its first live report.

 

Fast forward to today. If you were that Senior Executive Producer, how would you write your resume? Would you say, “I am a risk taker, who makes split second decisions based on few facts, and I’m right 99% of the time.”? While it may be true, it does not sound credible. It also sounds arrogant.

 

In my opinion, the key word searches should end immediately. And, our industry needs more recruiters who have real world experience and are better paid. Or, we should eliminate recruiters all together. Nexstar apparently agrees. It eliminated its HR department. My guess is that it was a budget cutting move. Nevertheless, Nexstar has hired some strong GMs. There is a reason that TV stations have many average managers, and few management stars. Good decision making and cultures start at the top. They are not led by HR or recruiters.

 

 

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Think Like The Viewers   Or Suffer A Rough Ride

July 26, 2018

Topical news promotion can be a train wreck. Be careful where you decide to take viewers on their ride. Viewers are looking for any excuse they can find NOT to watch your news….especially your late news. Therefore, when viewers watch a topical, and they have already seen, heard, or read the stories you’re selling, you’ve lost them. They are gone even before the newscast begins. You will also lose them if they don’t care about what you are promoting. This is not my opinion. It comes from the results of dozens of online studies, and over 40 focus groups.

 

Many stations still approach topicals like we live the eighties. It’s too bad; they really didn’t work then either. Up until the digital age, viewers would watch a promo and, unless you were their favorite station, they would switch. They knew that the station they liked the most would probably have the story, too. Now they just go to entertainment or off.

 

Some stations try to fool viewers with lines like, “We’ll have the latest on story X.” But, the viewers already have the latest. Most are watching TV with their smartphone or tablet in their hands. Unless you are promoting a story that is changing minute by minute, be careful. Then be honest. Try, “We are following a huge explosion. New information is coming in constantly. The latest….live.”

 

The safest bet is to promote compelling original content that viewers can’t get ANYWHERE else. Even then, some of the story should appear on your website and app, so the viewers will want to know more.

 

There are certain stories that will drive viewers away in drove. One of the big ones is animal cruelty. GC Media has studied a lot of Nielsen “Minute-by-Minute” reports on nights when animal cruelty stories aired. The results are always the same: ratings take a nosedive.

 

So, what do you do if the News Department is not churning out original content? Promote your brand, if you have one. Just remember not to confuse a tagline and a brand. “Live, Local, and Late Breaking” is not a brand, unless you are the ONLY station in the market that does that. On the other hand, WPVI uses, “Action News is Everywhere.” It works because Channel 6 covers far more stories than its competitor.

 

Remember, this post is only about linear television. The Marketing Director needs to worry about many issues on digital platforms. I have seen 1st place stations fail miserably at SEO. Why? Because no one is devoting enough time to optimize its opportunities on search engines.

 

All of this is fixable. Start with producing original content. If that doesn’t get fixed, it’s because of bad management. Eventually, there will be new managers who will fix the problems or some newscasts will not survive.

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Changing a Newsroom Culture: The Ultimate Test of Leadership

 

 

 

Cliff, Abromats, President and CEO

July 25, 2018

There has been a lot of talk about the economic viability of local television news.  The outlook is grim. In my previous post I suggested that the best hope for increasing news viewership and revenue is to generate original content….a lot of it.

 

But many News Directors lack key skillsets that hold them back. Yes, you still must know the basics, including covering breaking news, writing with a sense of urgency, legal concerns, and the rules of HR. But at the top of today’s list should be changing a culture. If you change a culture, your staff will instinctively create great content. Changing a culture requires heavy lifting. Change is inevitable for the business to survive. The only question is whether it will change because of you or without you.

 

Changing a newsroom culture requires a number of qualities:

  • A News Director who is a risk taker. This is not a job for the timid or meek.
  • An unwavering determination to produce results quickly.
  • A vision of how a newsroom that constantly generates new content should function.
  • Well-articulated expectations of what every team member needs to do.
  • A news management team that fully understands the mission, and is “all in” when it comes to execution. It is the News Director’s role to teach the team. Give it your best shot. Unfortunately, those who do not get it, must go.
  • A News Director who constantly reviews reporters stories, and diligently works with each member of the team to improve their skills.
  • Finally, someone who believes in providing an engaging product that will propel the station into first place.

 

Very few people like change. Too bad! The viewers have already changed, and are leaving local news at an alarming rate. Our industry must move with great haste. Initially the News Director should be liked by a few, viewed with skepticism by many, and feared by no one. Fear is debilitating. S/he should use the few who are believers to help spread the concept, and convert the skeptics.

 

I have one additional piece of advice. Reporters are key to driving original content. There is one station that I work with that requires reporters to leave a next day story idea before they leave for the day. I would put that requirement in every reporter job description, and in every personal service contract.

 

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Content

Be Original or Obsolete

July 24, 2018

 

 

Local television news is at a critical crossroads. If you make the wrong choice, your News Department may go the way of the New York Daily News. Yesterday the paper announced massive layoffs.

 

Over the years GC Media has conducted a lot of research. One question that we occasionally ask is, “Do you already know most of the day’s news before you tune into a TV newscast?” The percentage of people answering “yes” is at an all-time high. As a result, fewer people are watching a linear newscast. More expensive anchors or better producers will not solve this problem. ONLY UNIQUE CONTENT WILL.

 

I recently met with Sean McLaughlin, VP of News for Scripps. He told me that he asked staff to write down every story in a late newscast, and then draw a line through every story that they had already seen, heard or read. Then he asked, of the remaining stories, how many did anyone care about. There was little that was not crossed out.

 

Our industry must begin to recognize that we are content providers. Period! We provide content on a myriad of platforms. And, if we don’t provide unique content, we are nothing more than a commodity. Commodities are sold on price. In our case, the currency is the viewers’ time, and time is valuable to all of us.

 

Producing original content is not particularly difficult. Nor, is it expensive. Most crime stories can be covered in 20 seconds. If possible have the reporter and videographer that you would devote to another gang shooting, and have them ride with a police gang unit. Ask why they put their lives on the line every day, when witnesses are too afraid to talk.

 

Here is another example: I recently watched a station do a package about the opening of a shelter. This one was for female human trafficking victims. It basically was a few shots of 12 beds, and a short interview that focused on the shelter. Since Buffalo is a major border crossing, I decided to search Google for the situation in Buffalo. I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of victims are from the Buffalo DMA. They are not smuggled across the border. I also never realized most are arrested on prostitution charges, which makes them unemployable, and they are forced to go back to their captor. The moral of the story is cover the shelter in twenty seconds, and focus on the victims and their plight.

 

Finally, many stations devoted time for the tragic shootings in Toronto. The story broke late Sunday night. But by Monday morning, virtually everyone had heard it.  Canada has always said their gun laws prevent shootings. But, gun violence in Canada is rising rapidly. Why? After reading several articles, Canada has loopholes in its gun laws, too. And illegal weapons change hands all the time. The shooter, by the way, had a long history of mental problems. By the early evening news, stations should have been doing stories about whether gun control laws work anywhere, and what is being done to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people.

 

You may have already done some of these “enterprise” stories. But, I would bet real money that you can come up with many others. You have to change the way people inside your newsroom think of news. Put simply, if it is not new and interesting, viewers might as well read a boring history book. And, if we lose too many more viewers, you will have plenty of time to do that, too.

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Digital Danger!

July 15, 2018

Television news is no longer a cash machine. Ratings are slipping, while the amount of inventory available is constantly expanding. To really comprehend the magnitude of the current situation, you must get you head out of the traditional linear world, and view the universe through a digital lens. Compared to any local news, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest sell more effective ways for advertisers to reach a highly defined audience, and they sell that inventory for less.

 

If you are having a hard time appreciating how fast things are changing, consider this: Next year industry analysts project that the amount of money earned from retransmission fees will exceed the cash brought in by television sales.

 

While this sea change is occurring, there are not many television stations really pushing the edge, and discovering new paths to revenue generation. Virtually every station is attempting to monetize its online and mobile products. That is an effort in futility. Advertisers are going to seek the lowest rates to reach the people they want to touch. And, given the amount of inventory in the digital world, they have a lot to choose from. Programmatic is not even fully deployed yet, but when AI and computerized buying really take hold locally, rates will drop even more.

 

For local news to survive it must increase ratings significantly. Most industry leaders don’t believe that this can be done. I agree with them. At least I agree, as long as we keep providing the same old product at times (5:00 pm, 6:00 pm, etc.) that are convenient for us, but not the viewers.

 

What we need is a new breed of news managers and corporate leaders. Upper management must allow news directors to fail. News managers must be risk takers, who want to go where no one has gone before. Here are some of the things that I would consider:

  • Most content must be original. Put simply, it should not be available anywhere else.
  • This original content must feel like news, if we are going to remain in the news business. That calls for enterprise and investigative reporting.
  • Some stories can make the viewers feel good. But, the viewers must consider the bulk of what we report is information they NEED to know.
  • Weather is too long, and done too many times. I don’t know about you, but I already know what the weather will be long before I tune into a newscast. Weather should be treated like breaking news. If weather is the story, then it should get a lot of time, and be covered from many angles. Otherwise, it can be done in less than a minute.
  • The same is true for Sports. By 11:00 PM, there were not many sports fans in America who did not know that LeBron James was headed to LA. What they might not have known is how he intends to continue to oversee his charitable endeavors in Cleveland.
  • Have a digital first mentality. Get a story on a digital platform as soon as it is done. Worry about a newscast second.

 

Those are just a few ideas. Hopefully, this will get a conversation going at your station. Better yet, you will generate some truly ground breaking ideas.

 

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Innovate Now:

The Clock is Ticking

July 3, 2018

The future of local television news looks bleak. Why?

  • Viewers get news and information from many sources, regardless of where they are or what time it is.
  • Put yourself in the viewer’s place for a moment. They only want to watch what is interesting to them. In a typical 30-minute newscast, how many stories do you find that convey information that you needed or wanted to know?
  • Television news really has not changed much in decades. It is stale. To create something fresh requires management to believe in taking risks. WSVN in Miami did. It worked, but that was 20 years ago and that was then. Now is different story.

 

TV news management thinks that having anchors stand is innovative. If that is all the industry has to offer, viewers will continue to defect. But, you can rewrite the future.

 

Thinking outside the box is not that difficult. The management team needs to come together, and put every idea on the table, regardless of cost. Expense will be and should be a primary concern, but not at the beginning. An idea that has outrageous cost implications may spark other ideas that are budget friendly. I would not initially take the existing staff into consideration, either. Create the product, then decide whether you have the people who can execute it. In large markets, most viewers can’t even remember your anchors names. Replacing them may not create a problem. In medium and small markets, there are some anchors with enough longevity that you may have to work around them. But for the brainstorming sessions, they should be fair game, too.

 

When you have at least two fresh concepts that meet your budget criteria, produce pilots. Then, get reaction from focus groups. No matter what, the groups will at least give you some observations of things that should be tweaked.

 

Finally, remember that we are living in a digital world. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and whatever the future brings should all play a part in your plan. If you have any doubts, we recently conducted a television research project and the vast majority of people who responded to the survey did so from their smartphones or tablets.

 

 

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TV News:

Are you worth your paycheck?

June 24, 2018

I remember being in New York about five years ago. I was talking to a friend, who is one of the city’s best and hardest working television reporters. During our conversation he said he just had his salary reduced by $100,000. The most obvious question to ask was how he felt about that. He replied, “At least I have a job.” Two weeks ago another large market anchor was told by her agent that her new contract would be reduced by 50%. She decided that family was more important, and will not return to the station. Last week, I was speaking to a friend in management. He is the News Director in top ten market. He told me that he has spent the last 5 years telling on air staffers, who do good work, that their compensation was being cut. He said the conversations were never easy, but he explained to anchors and reporters that there was a new news reality.

 

The new reality is simple. RTNDA reported last year that there are now more stations doing news than at any point in history. That has produced some profound results.

  • Unaided anchor recall is negligible. If people don’t know your name, management is asking, “How valuable are you?” Take Los Angeles as an example. There are over 125 anchors, not including those on the Hispanic stations. How can anyone stand out? Research indicates no one does.
  • In many large markets, the difference between winning and losing is measured in tenths of a demo point. Since ad buyers pay for points, the first place station is not making significantly more money than the second or third place stations. There is little incentive to invest because revenue will not rise enough to offset expense.

 

But, it is not just the number of linear newscasts that produce lower ratings. I watch news on my tablet and occasionally on my phone.  Most stations are not great at monetizing this viewing.

 

Our industry must stop thinking of itself as broadcasters, and start believing we are content suppliers. In the end, the content supplier with the largest digital footprint will win. My advice to talent is to exploit Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and every other digital platform like your job depended on it. Because it does.

 

 

 

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August 6, 2017

 

Associated Press is now using artificial intelligence to write stories. So far, computers are generating business reports based on information supplied by publicly held companies to investors. Training a computer to write some sports stories based on stats was the next step and that is now a reality. Those who write copy at AP are now working on template to help the computers learn how to compose news stories. As you would suspect, all of this is raising some interesting questions.

  • What happens when 3 great writers are asked to write the same story? It had been my experience that you will get three very good pieces of copy. Each will have a slightly different take. If each is helping build a template for a computer, which will the computer use and why?
  • How will the computer gather the facts to write the story? If a human has to feed it the facts, it might be faster for that person to simply write the story by him/herself.

Building computer programs for a news organization takes money and a lot of time. For every newsroom in America to design its own AI program would probably be too expensive. But, the alternative is not really viable. The alternative is to have several national companies sell a system to a station or group. That would lead to two distinct problems.

  • Newscasts would all sound the same. They would be commodities.
  • No newscast would reflect the emotional needs of different people in different markets. Despite having large Hispanic populations, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Miami have nothing in common. Each market has its own values.

So where does that leave us right now? In my opinion, AI definitely has a place in a newsroom. Let’s take breaking news. AI is capable of listening to what is occurring, what you are reporting and making suggestions for additional angles to pursue. It definitely can calculate traffic patterns and determine what crew can get to the scene the faster. It may not be the crew that is the closest. Since AI can listen to the human voice and turn it into text no one need worry about closed captioning. The list goes on, but AI is definitely coming to a newsroom near you.

 
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