Local TV News Project 2000
Time of Peril for TV News
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...
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.
Special Target Subjects - Useful to my Life
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.
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.
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."
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.