October 1, 2000

Local TV News Project 2000

News in Prime Time

By Tom Dolan

Reporter Jaime Garza of KCAL in Los Angeles positioned his live shot in El Cajon Pass with care. Not only was it a scene-setter for the 10 p.m. news, but it also helped to explain visually the story of the day and let you know tomorrow's commute might be even worse in the fog.

Garza set up cones at 25-foot intervals to show the distance at which drivers could see one another, in order to dramatize the need to drive under 30 m.p.h to avoid collisions. That day motorists who had been driving at twice that speed caused an enormous pile-up.

Garza showed how the news of the day could be made memorable, not a rehash of the "6 p.m. newscast of record." Unfortunately, from what I see, such imagination is too often lacking in primetime news.

As part of the Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2000 Study, we wanted to see how stations in selected markets used their extra time to produce an hour of local news versus a traditional half-hour. I found newscasts that do not take advantage of extra time for preparation to advance stories, and often fail to come up with new angles to important pieces, or to generate new material targeted to the primetime audience. Here are some exceptions, along with suggestions for fresh approaches.

Going Live in Primetime

Virtually all markets in the country place a premium on immediacy and the importance of live reporting from the scene. This usually means reporters stand in the dark, or at a crime scene, hours after the story has gone cold. It doesn't have to be that way. KCAL's Garza isn't standing in an empty road. His traffic cone demonstration effectively illustrates what to expect in the next morning's fog.

Anchor Role in Newscast

Market research shows that anchors are one of the top reasons people watch local news. It is surprising they are not used as primary storytellers in any of the five markets we studied. All special reporting is handled by reporters.

Stations may want to consider using anchors to report stories, build short background pieces, or do those "smart anchor tags" with useful follow-up information. They might even take advantage of a health or consumer warning to simply stand at the key wall, using graphics to explain why the geography of a story may be important.

Primetime News is…

  • WELL-SOURCED: 1 in three stories have multiple sources, compared to 1 in 4 nationwide
  • GENERIC: 30% of stories are feed material
  • SENSATIONAL: full of stories on everyday crime and bizarre mishaps
  • POPULAR: 60% are gaining viewers vs. 35% of traditional local news shows
  • AVERAGE GRADE: C

News of the Day

The study shows that primetime news programs often failed to use their extra time to initiate investigations, report on investigations by others, or even conduct tough interviews. It also found that almost half of primetime news stories were feed material or prearranged events covered with no on-camera personnel.

You may want to look at "news of the day" with stories angled in a more thoughtful way, one in which audiences are able to recognize the enterprise. This would give viewers a clearer sense of differentiation among competitors, and certainly provide an opportunity to promote the top stories besides "they happened."

In New York, WPIX, WWOR and WNYW all covered the latest in a rash of murder-suicides in the region as a top story. They all appeared to be solid, well-packaged stories. However, all three had live "wraps" with no produced live element. Each seemed a case of the day's events covered without significant new detail. For example, no one went to the dead young man's neighborhood to learn what may have motivated him.

Stations with primetime news should not only take advantage of the extra time within a newscast, they should also employ the four-or-so-hour advantage they have over 6 p.m. news to produce more forward-thinking news. If the story is strong enough to lead with, it should be strong enough to do real "team" reporting.

For example, a WPIX reporter, Mary Murphy, took a story most stations would air as a promo — the sexy appearance of the "7th Heaven" star Jessica Biel in Gear magazine — and showed good enterprise. Murphy's well-written piece followed Biel's transition from a minister's daughter on a WB family show — using file tape from an appearance at the toy store FAO Schwarz — to someone who does a sultry spread to change her image for Hollywood. She made a WB station's "mandatory" piece on a WB program into good journalism.

Original Reporting

  • WNYW: Although there appeared to be little original reporting across the five cities, a couple of stations have committed staff. New York's WNYW produced a good special report on contamination in packaged food at transit-stop restaurants. Reporters traveled to three of New York's major transit hubs and documented the problems on camera. But after one vendor challenged the station to come back once he had cleaned up his act, WNYW failed to make clear whether it intended to do so. When an allegation is aired, a journalist's obligation is to follow up. Not doing so can affect a station's credibility with viewers. The station agrees it may have been "a missed opportunity."

  • WAGA: Atlanta's WAGA also scored low for enterprise but did some good individual stories. "Shocked," by reporter Dana Fowle, exposed how Atlanta is lax in policing street-lamp vandalism: many lamp pole covers are missing or hanging off their hinges, exposing live wires. This was a great story, well produced and well documented. Fowle interviewed a Philadelphia teen who had almost been electrocuted and then had an expert test the open "hot boxes" using a special device.
    But the station also undermined a good effort in two ways. It waited until a short tag after a long story to tell the viewer why these covers were missing: vandals were stealing them to sell for scrap metal. It also teased the temporary solution for part two, when the importance of the story demanded more treatment the same night.
  • WWOR: WWOR's Joe Collum produced an I-Team piece to test the N.Y.P.D.'s sensitivity program "Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect." His key finding: twenty percent of callers to the police radio response unit were told to call back. Some were treated with anything but respect. A former Internal Affairs officer posed, in one instance, as a Hispanic caller. One policeman was overheard saying in response: "How come no matter what color the soap is, the suds are always white?" — a racist remark implying that whites will always be in charge. The department responded to the report by saying it would not tolerate this type of behavior by officers. Great assignment and handling by the station as well as gutsy demonstration of enterprise.

Special Target Subjects – Useful to my Life

  • Health: Most research points to health as a beat that audiences value. With rare exceptions, stations in the study did not commit to it as an important segment.
    The exceptions show the potential when a commitment is made. WNYW did a good spot on ear infections from the perspective of what parents should watch for. WAGA investigated a product that promised breast size growth, but an expert warned that tumors might grow from the resulting estrogen stimulation. Another expert stated there is no evidence the device works. Reporter Melissa Jue found that the manufacturer's biology degree is only honorary.

  • Managing Your Money: The three most popular Web sites on the Internet in prime time are all money related. Meanwhile, viewing is up 20% for business networks CNBC, CNNfn, and Bloomberg. WNYW and WWOR appear to be the only newscasts in the study producing a segment on finance.

    WWOR delivered a good enterprise story about Warner-Lambert's merger with Pfizer to form the world's second- largest pharmaceutical company. They sold it to a primetime audience with the connecting copy: "You probably have some of their products in your medicine cabinet, but how will the union of two big companies affect you?"

    The WWOR team made it relate by reporting on the merger of the makers of Listerine and Viagra. WWOR dealt with the plight of Warner-Lambert's company town, Morris Plains, N.J., contrasting the fates of employees who would be laid off with the Warner CEO who stood to receive a six-million-dollar golden parachute.

    WNYW uses a street.com expert to do market analysis every night, a kind of play by play on where the market is going after a post-mortem on the trading day. It's helpful. The point of view is, "A lot of people are making money, how can you make money too?"

Using the Internet

National surveys find that many local news viewers begin prime time by scanning their favorite Web sites. If you think of your potential late news audience in that way, you may be able to drive viewers from the Internet to your money segment. How are you addressing what your viewers are doing before the news, to drive them to your broadcast?

Los Angeles's KTLA addresses this issue with a segment called "Kurt Smith, Cyber Guy." One February series put the reporter in a converted bus to demonstrate how to survive for a week using only the Internet. He ordered food, silverware and clothing and proved that the Internet is so diverse you can literally live that way if you want to.

Weather

While the study does not grade for weather, why not devote some time or special treatment to weather explainers like the syndicated product "Weather in Motion," or have local graphic artists animate topically driven weather news? You may want to think about producing weather differently with an hour of prime news to give your viewers something value-added versus the traditional half-hour format.

Over 80% of the producers I interview say they watch the NBC "Nightly News," in part because of Robert Hager's explainer pieces. They also appreciate the network's pieces that focus on the impact of breaking news, not just "what happened." Whether it is news or weather, market research and 25 years in local TV news show me that viewers respond to unique content.

Original Content

Some stations try to offer an alternative to the six p.m. newscast-of-record approach. But these efforts seem superficial. KMSP in Minneapolis aired a six-minute segment of a kind many stations include to appear hip. "The Buzz" included scenes from a play opening in town, the Disney character Tutter touring locally, Steven Spielberg having kidney surgery, clips from a band playing a benefit concert for missing kids as well as a series of movie trailers.

If you are trying to brand a new product, or trying to develop a new brand of localism, you may want to avoid simple "cookie-cutter" program elements like these, or produce them with your own material. Most of the video appeared to be syndicated or handout. The station says "The Buzz" is its segment to differentiate itself and show its "commintment to the local arts scene."

Looking Forward

Knowing it is up against primetime news magazines and well-produced entertainment, Fox's KTVI, in St. Louis, has just launched a newscast that will be a "showcase show." News Director Brad Remington says it will utilize several special projects producers to deliver unique content, produced for the time period with a very local feel. The newscast, Remington says, will go well beyond "the 6 p.m. news" and also tell the viewer what to expect tomorrow. So far, the early ratings look good.

Tom Dolan is President of Dolan Media Management. He has also been a vice president at Broadcast Image Group and News Director at WLS TV in Chicago.