Class notes for Tuesday, February 29, 2000.

Television and the Local News

Seattle. Whatís news?

Hereís a list of possible news stories for tonightís 5 p.m. news show. What are your top 5 stories?

1. Nordstrom Development/Garage. City, state and federal laws were broken in the development of this $400 million garage, investigators announced today.

2. A sixth victim of a Spokane serial killer has been discovered: a woman from Auburn.

3. A new study indicates that traffic congestion in Seattle is so bad that the city is strangling to death. This has clear economic impact. Businesses in the area find that they cannot remain competitive when truckers are stuck for hours in traffic. Port of Seattle in particular is hit hard.

4. Two or three men broke into the Federal Way home of a police officer last night. They held the family at gunpoint, ransacked the home, fleeing (without hurting anyone) with guns and a car.

5. Lamar Smith, Seahawks running back, got a 3-month jail sentence for reckless driving.

6. Green River Community College has suspended its baseball coach. The coach and team maintained/groomed their baseball field; it was supposed to be maintained by county workers.

7. El Nino may cause an early snow melt in the Washington state Cascade mountains, causing a problem for summer water supply.

8. A welfare fraud ring in Pierce County has been broken. An extended family of 20 men and women are accused of defrauding the government of millions of dollars.

9. An Auburn woman pleaded guilty to child abandonment - for leaving her one-year-old boy home alone.

10. Clean air. A study just released shows that Seattleís air quality has improved greatly in the past 10 years; the rate of improvement is one of the highest in the country.

11. Childhood asthma attacks have increased in the region, particularly among inner city kids. These attacks are the #2 reason for hospitalization of kids.

Local TV News: Economics of coverage

1. Costs of news, size of staff.

2. Exploiting/maximizing fixed costs

Reporters, Camera teams, Helicopters, planes, Electronic news gathering equipment. Because YOU CAN do something LIVE, you will.

SNVs (look like a truck with a satellite dish on top) are the newest rage, replacing copters and minicams. Technicians can send the TV signal from the SNV to a microwave receiving and transmitting station and then back to the signal. Or it can send the signal from virtually anywhere in the US directly to a satellite and back to the station for storage or live broadcast. The SNVs contain full edit facilities, telephones and even computers. Development of the Ku-Brand frequency, an improved signal transmission system that is much simpler for the broadcaster to use, has made it possible for these small SNVS to transmit reliable signals, free of static and breakup.

Therefore:

a. Live shots: Picture of a reporter at a hospital - standing by the hospital admissions sign. WE were there sort of emphasis. We SAW IT. EYE WITNESS NEWS. Note: this is primarily a marketing strategy. Doesnít mean that the news will be a lot better.

b. Technology-driven coverage.

3. Visuals: Itís not news unless thereís a picture. So some kinds of things just donít get covered -- if there is no way to get a picture with it.

4. Ratings and Consultants

Overnight ratings for local TV shows. Highly competitive.

Network News: Not a major part of early TV. 15 minutes of headlines until 1962. Only then did it go to 30 minutes. Presentation of the news was considered to be a public service; nothing less and nothing more. It was not expected to generate serious revenues for the company. But in the 1970s, that began to change. American public developed an increasing appetite for TV news. At the networks, that meant increased ratings for the early evening news shows. Network news shows began to break even, or even how a small profit. Local TV stations also found that news could be profitable. Just as important, news programs provided stations with local identity, a means of bonding with the members of the community. This was an important advantage in selling advertising time for all parts of the day and night.

Network news hit hard times in the 1980s. ABC, CBS and NBC all changed owners, and the new owners had borrowed heavily to buy these properties. Jeff Greenfield. "What all three network snow had in common was a greatly increased debt to equity ratio, and new owners with no link to the old tradition that tended to shield network news from the accountant and cost manager."

New owners began to ask questions about why news cost so much, why the news division didnít generate profits or more profits. Serious cost cutting took place at all three networks. Many long time network corespondents (with big salaries) were let go in favor of younger, less experienced and less expensive talent. Some foreign and domestic bureaus were closed or reduced in size. Investigative reporting diminished.

A softening of the news package, to try to lure more viewers and increase ratings, was evident. Hodding Carter writes: "Increasingly, the pressure is on to tailor a product to affect a wider audience as opposed to tailoring a product that meets its chief responsibility -- to offer the most comprehensive look around the world."

Consultants. National consulting firms such as McHugh and Hoffman, Inc., of McLean, VA, and Frank Magid Associates, Marion Iowa, have significantly affected TV news in America. For somewhere between $10K and $50K (far more for the networks, of course), depending on their market size, stations have been purchasing from the consultants insights into viewer preferences about anchorpersons, types of stories, tastes in weather and sports news, and even set design.

The results of such studies are frequently taken most seriously by lower rated news operations, which are quick to fire anchors, hire more psychographically and demographically appealing ones, and rearrange the furniture.

RESULTS of RATINGS AND CONSULTANTS.

a. Formulas. Formulas result: Action news, eyewitness news, news from the newsroom. HAPPY TALK. 1970s and 1980s. Banter in the news room. Conversational style. Think about the on-air people you see. Age? Looks? Any old people? large people? very plain or non-handsome/pretty people?

b. What kinds of news? Dramatic, oomph to it. The tragic drowning is more likely a story than a more serious economic story that has great impact.

c. Visuals. Dramatic visuals.

d. Entertainment-style news. Entertainment, not info, becomes the overriding emphasis, partly because entertainment is second nature in the medium and partly because the consultants, whose backgrounds are in typically in marketing, are hired by management and not by news editors.

5. Marketing: Result of consultants, competition.