Friday, February 18, 2005

So Why Is Local Election Coverage So Lacking On TV News?

A new study looked at 11 large TV markets in the month leading up to Election Day 2004. It found just 8 percent of the local evening newscasts were devoted to local races and issues. Media watchers, including press-bashing conservatives are not happy. Neither is the National Association of Broadcasters, which pointed to flawed methodology, namely leaving out daytime and morning newscasts, "Nightline," Sunday morning interview shows, and station websites.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona has introduced legislation shortening the time between license renewals and forcing broadcasters to detail their public-service programming committments. Good luck getting this bill passed against the power of the NAB. Then again, higher fines for indecency appear to be sailing through Congress.

But let's get back to the title question. As a TV newscast producer, I can offer you my insights, for what they're worth. And remember, my opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of other producers or the stations they work for.

1) Not enough time. To do political coverage right, you need to devote a considerable chunk of airtime. My "news hole" is about 13 minutes at 10pm. That's what's left for news after sports and weather have taken their slices. I would argue you need at least two minutes to devote to each race. That doesn't seem hard for me, and frankly, I've run longer pieces in the past. Just tonight, KOLD News 13 devoted 4 minutes to the issue of growth problems in Sahuarita, a boom town south of Tucson. Not exactly tabloid TV. If we can do it for growth, we can do it for politics. But at other stations you've got other people out there who just gotta have time for crap like the Michael Jackson circus trial. Come on -- if it's all over the cable channels and Court TV, do you really need it too?

2) Not enough people. TV stations aren't cash cows. And when times get tough, people get laid off. When things do turn around, many stations don't bother to return to their previous staffing levels, thinking they can make it just fine with the bare essentials. Heck, just let the network news feeds and CNN fill up the time. News is news, right? Thankfully, I work at a station willing to make the committment to local news. Don't get me going about Sinclair and its NewsCentral fiasco, which mainly involves slashing staff and doing news out of a central location in Maryland... and oh yeah, with a conservative slant, too. When you've got enough news of the day and "breaking news" to cover, good luck having the time to do anything else.

3) Not enough interest. A colleague at a previous station told me people only care about politics on one day: Election Day. I'd like to think she's wrong, but the ratings keep telling me she's on to something. Issue-driven programming makes for good citizens but lousy Neilsens. Yes, we have This Week and Meet The Press and Face The Nation. But none are a ratings smash, and really, those programs are more about providing material for the Monday newspapers on the slowest news day of the week. Yes, we have Bill O'Reilly and the gaggle of cable shout-shows -- if you want a political version of the WWE. Jim Lehrer does a fine job each night on the NewsHour, but only a sliver of us are watching. Put three or four guys at a roundtable and fingers hit the remotes. No station manager or news director wants to be tuned out.

4) Not enough experience. Quality political reporting requires quality people, who do quality reporting. Many of those people demand quality money, too. Unfortunately, too many stations put their old masters out to pasture rather than paying the cash and getting over their irrational fears of the fiftysomething reporter scaring off "key demos" -- people aged 18-49. Hiring young and new means hiring cheaper. I'm sure a lot of college hires could cut it, but unlike newspapers, most TV news operations don't use the "beat" system, meaning everybody covers everything from car crashes to crime to education to politics. Guess what kinds of stories reporters cover the least.

5) Not enough creativity. I'm sure a way exists to make political stories watchable, interesting, and informative, but stations aren't trying hard enough to find it... even with all the graphics and eye candy available to us now -- and without turning into another shout-fest, either. If people aren't watching issue-oriented political news, maybe it's because we're not making it relevant to them. We're not telling them why they should care. If we ask viewers to give up 30 minutes or more of their day to spend with us, we've got to make sure we're answering viewers questions.

6) Not enough committment. Unfortunately, some stations (and station groups) just don't want to do heavy public-service lifting. And why should they have any motivation to? I don't know of a single station that lost its license for failing to devote enough time to community issues. The FCC ditched the "fairness doctrine" years ago. It dropped requirements that AM and FM stations devote a certain percentage of their time to news. Fine. The FCC shouldn't dictate content. But nobody should act surprised that political coverage has slipped when the regulators have clearly said they don't care much about it either.


I'm not one to gripe without offering a few ways out. Here's some ways we can turn things around:

1) Reward stations that make the committment. How about tax breaks for stations that can demonstrate a consistant record of issue-oriented news programming? This isn't about regulating content -- this is giving stations some incentive to overcome fears of lower ratings and lower revenues. Here in Arizona, we have the "Clean Elections" system, which is encouraging people to run for office with state-subsidized campaign money. I think we can find some financial encouragement for broadcasters.

2) Sell advertisers on the value of political coverage. Show me an advertiser who wants to be a good neighbor -- most do -- and I'll show you a way to pay the costs of more local political coverage. Do a couple of news specials each election year with nothing but political stories and get them to pay for it.

3) Tell people why they should care. Here's a rough draft for a promo, and I do mean rough: "Your vote is your voice. Don't like the way the system is treating you? You can change it. And we're going to tell you about the people who want to run things. Because if you don't make the choice at the ballot box, somebody's going to make a choice for you. And you might not like it. Don't say we didn't warn you." We've gotten so good at scare tactics for goofy news series. Why not use the same technique for something really worthwhile -- like democracy?

As always, I'm interested in your ideas. Use the "comment" button.

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