Posts Tagged ‘broadcast journalism’

The Case Against Audience Research for TV News Departments

November 26, 2012

It is good to know that at least one important news executive believes that broadcast news is still a public service.  That’s what  Jeff Fager, CBS News Chairman and 60 Minutes Executive Producer, told Arizona State Walter Cronkite Journalism School students recently, and I was fortunate enough  to hear the lecture on C-span.

“We are approaching a story in a smart way, a focused way that helps people better understand what is happening in the world,” he told  them.  “It’s about telling a story and it’s about reporting, how good a reporter are you? How well can you dig things up? How well do you  find things out?”

He explained how retired 60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt influenced him, saying  that what Hewitt believed goes against all the conventional wisdom you hear about in news today.  “We never did audience research. We still don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in it.” However, it drives many news decision-makers now.  It may tell you not to do a story because it’s not visual and the audience doesn’t care about it.  He said he knew serious journalists who  run news organizations who would not cover the war in Afghanistan because research told them it was a turn off.  He says they are wrong.  A hundred thousand Americans are risking their lives in a war zone.  What  he didn’t say, but what I do say is that such behavior is irresponsible for anyone who calls himself a member of the Fourth Estate.  News media have a civic responsibility in a democracy such as ours. 

The truly important point he made, in my view, because it is one I tried to make repeatedly when I was still in the business, is that you cover a story because you think it is important  and you make it interesting.  It is up to you, the reporter, to do that, to make it interesting. 

For those who don’t buy the no-audience-research news philosophy, you need to take a look at the most successful news program in the  history of television.  60 Minutes has been on the air for 45 years  and has been and still is phenomenally successful. It is a ratings champion, still  often in the top ten. It is a combination of hard-noised investigative reporting and some stories about celebrities.   Fager says he plans to cut back on the celebrity stories and make the program even more relevant. The stories are not selected because of audience  research, but because the people who manage 60 Minutes believe they are important, important enough to do well.

Fager says CBS News will continue to follow the tradition established by people like Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, and Walter Cronkite. It will continue to challenge authority. It will take risks.  It will report from war zones. These are  things many news decision-makers don’t do because they are dangerous, expensive, and risky, but CBS News will.

Now, if we can just get the rest of the broadcast news world to follow their lead.  When is the last time you saw a truly important local investigative report on a controversial subject?  For many  years, even though we did not have the resources of CBS News, we use to do some digging, some investigative reporting, a lot more reporting on what legislators in Atlanta and Montgomery were up to. We didn’t rule them out because they might not be good TV picture stories. We made them interesting, and used creativity to come up with illustrative pictures, and, yes, we got good ratings.    

Also, corporate management stayed out of the newsroom. Stories were not killed because they might offend some powerful person or organization.  At  least, that was my experience. Management tried to hire capable broadcast journalists and let them do their jobs. More than once I had to be defended by station management, and I have to say that when I was a news director, they always backed me solidly.  Once, when a powerful businessman called my then boss the late Jim Woodruff, Jr. , he said to Woodruff, “You can tell them not to run that story, Jim.” Woodruff told him, “Yes, you are right. I could do that. I could tell them not to run it, and it would not run. And then I would not be able to hire a decent reporter.” Ah, the good old days.     

 

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Media in Transition: The Jay Leno Show

September 14, 2009

WHAT NBC’S THE JAY LENO SHOW SYMBOLIZES

The TV revolution is not coming. It’s here. Jay Leno is leading it. At least, that’s the impression  you get if you read the Time magazine story, “Jay Leno Is Shrinking Your TV.”   Jay’s Monday-through-Friday prime time ten p.m. comedy, variety show, which will be a lot like his Tonight Show gig, is an NBC solution to the problems accompanying the changing world of TV. 

The subject is so big, especially when you bring in the newspapers,  that I can’t approach doing it justice with just one blog post.  That’s why you will be getting a series of reports on how local media is being affected by the realities of today’s media world. We will start with the Leno change because it does represent the problems faced by  NBC and the rest of the media world.

Drew Rhodes, WLTZ Vice President and General Manager, COlumbus, GA (Courtesy: WLTZ)

Drew Rhodes, WLTZ Vice President and General Manager, Columbus, GA (Courtesy: WLTZ)

WLTZ Vice President and General Manager Drew Rhodes,  whose station will be carrying the Leno show in the Columbus area,  agrees with the Time assertion that the Leno move is a gamble.   I asked him what he thought about the NBC experiment.

“Dick,” he says, “I think that it is just that, an experiment.  However, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  I’m very interested to see how Leno plays out.  He has a following.  Can he retain them and pick up more to compete with other prime broadcasts?  I really hope so.”

NBC admits that economics is a factor in its decision. It’s cheaper to produce the Leno show than scripted dramas and comedies that have been running at ten p.m.

“I understand the cost cutting measure,” says Drew. ” All broadcast television companies and parent networks are dealing with the economics at work today.  That does not necessarily mean two years from now, if the economy has returned to 2007 numbers, that we can not loosen the belts somewhat.”

Right now, though, those belts are still being tightened at TV stations and newspapers all over the country.  There are a number of reasons, but one of  the largest is the migration of people to the Internet to get their news.  We’ll look at that and more as we delve into the changing media world. Stay tuned.

Wayne Bennett’s First Retirement Party

May 10, 2009
(Left to right) Dave Platta, Jason Dennis, Paul Therrien,  Cheryl Morgan Myers, Wayne Bennett, Borden Black,  Kurt Schmitz, Bob Jeswald,  Columbus, GA TV personalities

(Left to right) Dave Platta, Jason Dennis, Paul Therrien, Cheryl Morgan Myers, Wayne Bennett, Borden Black, Kurt Schmitz, Bob Jeswald, Columbus, GA TV personalities

It was like a family reunion at the Borden Black and Cheryl Morgan Myers “oldtimers” retirement party for WTVM anchorman Wayne Bennett . Wayne’s last night on WTVM will be Friday,  May 15, 2009.  Just as it did for me when I retired in 2000,  the station will give Wayne a few minutes at the end of the 6 p.m. newscast to say goodbye. 
Wayne Bennett, retiring WTVM anchor,  Jason Dennis, Fox 54 anchor and Fox 54/WTVM reporter

Wayne Bennett, retiring WTVM anchor, Jason Dennis, WXTX Fox 54 anchor and WXTX/WTVM reporter

Jason Dennis,  who anchors the 10 p.m. news on WXTX, Fox 54 and also does some reporting that airs on both WTVM and WXTX,  has been preparing reports on Wayne’s broadcasting career.  Wayne is happy with that.  “I requested that he be the one to do it,” he said.  “I asked him to keep it light,  not make it into an obituary.  I’m not dead.”  That could be a clue that Wayne will keep his goodbye light Friday evening. 

“How would you sum up your 20 years at WTVM?” I asked him.

“That’s a loaded question, Dick.  I have to be careful because you’ll put it on your website,” he quipped.

I smiled and suggested, “Just tell the truth.”

“Well,  the truth is that television has been good to me.  I have enjoyed it,  but,  I don’t like the direction television [news] is taking so I am glad to be getting out at this time.  That’s the truth”

The sentiment that TV news has been and continues to go downhill was prevelent among the oldtimers who are no longer in the business. 

But, the serious stuff didn’t dominate the party.  There were plenty of laughs, and folks had a good time remembering stories they had covered over the years.  Though there is concern about the future direction of TV news,  it was clear that the oldtimers love the business.  Like I have always said,  one thing is for sure,  you won’t be bored if you work in television news.  It does, indeed, get very exciting.

Wayne and Betty Bennett, Wayne Bennett's  "oldtimers" retirement party

Wayne and Betty Bennett, Wayne Bennett's "oldtimers" retirement party

Now, like me,  and Dee,  Wayne gets to kiss the crushing deadlines goodbye  and to relax a little.  And that’s what he plans to do.  He and wife Betty, after a brief stay in Florida, are heading for Panama, where they plan to live. The cost of living there is a third less than in the United States, Wayne told me.  How long?  “Well, that depends on how well we like it.  If we don’t like it, we’ll go somewhere else,”  Betty  said. 

“Sounds like you are going on an adventure.”

“That’s right,” she said. “We are going on adventure and we look forward to it.”

Sounds like a fine plan to me.  After all, life is for living, as the cliche’ goes.  Bon voyage to both of you.    

For years, Wayne sported a mustache, but shaved it off a few years ago.    I asked him, “Are you going to grow a mustache now?”

“I’m probably going to grow a full beard,” he said.

He gets one more retirement party.  WTVM is having one for him Saturday.