The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World:
TV's Four New Media Mistakes
December 2003

by Terry L. Heaton

Two friends of mine have gone on the Atkins diet. I'm not sure if this is prescribed, but about a week into it, they decided it would be best to clean out their cupboards and remove anything with carbohydrates. Being nice folks, they thought it would be better to give the food to friends, rather than just toss it in the garbage. A twenty-something woman was the grateful recipient of their largess, but she called a few days later inquiring about a can of tomato soup, wondering if it might have gone bad. She said it seemed more like tomato paste than soup, but the can said "soup," so she warmed it up and ate it anyway. She was concerned, she said, because it was so thick, and she was afraid of getting sick. My friends got a good laugh, because she'd eaten a can of condensed soup, when the only soup she'd ever known was ready-to-eat.

So it is with the TV news industry. It's a Postmodern world we're in, but we're stuck in logical Modernist systems and driven by Modernist thinking. Postmodernists (Pomos) are completely different animals, and they don't care for our condensed-soup version of news and information. They're off doing their own thing in a ready-made world, and our job is to go to them, not try and make them come to us. Pomos aren't all young people, although more young folks are Postmodern than their elders. The determination of who is and who isn't is more reflective of the degree to which a person is immersed in the benefits of technology and uses the technology to leapfrog those who don't in terms of knowledge, access and participation in life. It's not a movement, and it's not temporary. It's a cultural makeover, and it's accelerating at a pace that's frightening to many.

One result is a sense of desperation that I hear from broadcasters these days. We know something's terribly wrong. Nothing "works" anymore. Steadily declining viewership brought about by disruptive innovations is tearing away at the heart of the industry. Old media is giving way to that which is new. TV stations are responding as best they can, but there are four mistakes I believe broadcasters are making with their New Media attempts that, if corrected, would better position them to be multimedia distributors of information and entertainment in a Postmodern world.

Mistake #1: New Media exists to support the old.

The basic mindset of most broadcasters is that the Internet should be used to augment what we do on the air. In a news application, for example, it's, "Go to our Website for more information." We put video on our Websites and little polls about issues of the day, but this thinking is completely backwards. The question is no longer what can we do online to increase our audience on air; it's what can we on air to increase our audience online. The Internet changes everything for broadcasters, because it frees them -- as purveyors of video news and entertainment to the community -- from the confines of a single-silo approach to reaching targets for advertisers. And that is, after all, our business.

New Media, and particularly the Internet, is exactly what its name implies: new forms of communication. In the same way that radio station owners were among the first to obtain television licenses, I think broadcasters should've been moving forward with the Internet. They're not, and it strikes at the core of what's wrong. Broadcasting pioneers didn't use television to try and boost their radio properties, so why do TV stations do this with the Internet?

A television station is still a powerful weapon in the community, and our ability to reach cumulative audiences makes it still the best bang for the buck in town. I'm not sure what the numbers are today, but it wasn't long ago that a station could "cume" (a term to describe combining various audiences) all TV households in the market in one week's time. That's likely slipped, but TV is still the quickest way to reach groups of people. What we should be doing is using that muscle to bring people to our New Media holdings, which is where we'll be making our money downstream.

New Media doesn't exist to support the old. It's the other way around.

Mistake #2: Broadcasters can still think like broadcasters.

Broadcast-think is top-down thinking in its purest form. Our towers reach into the heavens to beam signals "over" everybody. We jump through hoops with the FCC at license renewal time, because that signal defines us. Market forces set the rules, and we've developed an entire lexicon of terms and procedures that govern us, each built around the concept that we deliver a signal to the masses. Whenever there's conflict, it's always settled by the greatest number in the mass, whether that's programming or the words we can say on TV. We push envelopes, but only insofar as the mass will allow it. Our entire business model is built around the mass: Which program or daypart can reach the largest number thereof? The term gross rating points (GRPs), which is how advertising deals are structured, derives its meaning from the mass.

And, when the mass is your aim, you have no choice but to try and simultaneously meet their disparate needs. We cover a wide variety of news topics. Beats are assigned based on the need to be all things to all people. We do the weather and sports. We have our health reporters, our crime reporters, our entertainment reporters, our consumer help reporters, and our government reporters. When the mass discovers a new niche, our response is to "add a new segment" to our product. We do so holding our breath, and our concern is very real. What if the new segment alienates those loyal to other segments?

So it is in trying to be all things to all people. New Media is just the opposite, but broadcasters don't see that. They're minds are stuck in the condensed soup of yesterday. Postmodernism is about experiencing life, not watching it, and it's very up-close and personal. The Internet completely empowers the user, and only those who respect that are truly successful online.

Clinging to a broadcasting mindset is a dreadful error in a Postmodern world, for it blinds broadcasters to another serious New Media mistake.

Mistake #3: A single Website can meet my community's information needs.

This is the grossest of all the mistakes, and it flows from the broadcasting mindset. It's self-defeating and self-destructive, because the Internet is not a top-down portal. There is no beginning, no entry point, no governing body granting a license to the select few. It's just the opposite. Market forces are different here driven by consumers, not marketers. Users feed each other in a free-flowing dance of infinite movements and resist with all they've got suckling the breast of mother media. Got an idea? Put it out there and see what happens. It's anarchical, not hierarchical, which is all broadcasters know.

Web networks like IBS and Worldnow further this error by providing broadcasters with what appears to be the answer to all their problems a glistening, multi-dimensional Website with their name on it! We do a story and tell people to "go to our Website" for more information. From special events to special deals, we use our Website as an extension of our station. It seems so right, because it's so easy, but it's so wrong.

In the boom years of the Internet, the first to make it big were the search engine portals. This thing called the Web needed a way for people to find their way around, so beginning in 1990 a series of search tools were created by universities involved in early Internet development. Archie, Veronica and Jughead were their names. Yahoo and Lycos came on the scene in 1994, followed by InfoSeek, Excite and Alta Vista. New search technologies continued to be developed that allowed site owners to optimize their placement within the search directories. Then came HotBot, LookSmart, Ask Jeeves, GoTo and Northern Light. Google didn't come on the scene until 1998. AOL's managed content service began for MacIntosh and Apple users in 1990 but really didn't jump-start until a few years later.

What most of these had in common was they were often the "home page" of users' browsers, a starting point for the Web experience. We didn't understand the Internet, and the training wheels these companies provided were a necessary introduction to what lay beyond the portal. Smart (Modernist) marketers moved in and seized control of everything, which gave birth to a whole host of what seemed to be good ideas at the time, like the ubiquitous banner ad. Portal sites soon took on the appearance of NASCAR race cars, as they tried to be all things to all people.

All of this failed to take into consideration the cultural change that was taking place as the Internet grew. Armed with their own command and control technology, Pomos discovered they could bypass the marketing fingers of portals and go directly to their targets. Believe it or not, people actually know how to use this thing called the Internet and don't need to be handheld anymore.

Howard Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, is one of the people writing the rules for politics in a Postmodern world. No one can argue with the success Dean has had online, in terms of fundraising and gathering support. All of it has been done outside conventionality, for Trippi is a man who understands the Internet.

"You will absolutely suffocate anything that you're trying to do on the Internet by trying to command and control it."

The single, all-things-to-everyone Website is doing just that. The result is such a crowded, jangled mass of interconnectivity with every project competing for home page space and blinking and popping ads tossed in to help pay for it that people just go elsewhere to get their needs met. How dare they? I don't care how many "keywords" you give me, I'm simply not going to go to your fancy page where you "help" me find what I'm looking for. Why? Because I don't trust your motives or your judgment. I'll find it myself, thank you very much.

If your task were to build local video news on demand (VNOD) Website, it would be very different than a portalesque TV station site, would it not? Assuming this site also ran video commercials, wouldn't this be an easy sell? If you built a Website that targeted the information needs of any sector of the community, it would likewise be different and easier to offer targeted advertising. Branding the TV station with these sites would be optional, because the business model for each would be profit-centered and self-driven. Remember, the TV station serves the Web businesses, not vice versa. Registrations at each site would provide a rich database for smart sales people to use.

In looking at the future for his newspaper, New York Times on the Web Editor-in-Chief, Leonard Apcar, said recently, "We will not be wedded to the newspaper as the central core of The New York Times." This is evidence that the Times has made the shift in thinking away from the single silo.

When the single silo has become many, the condensed soup has become ready-to-eat.

Mistake #4: Any kind of video streaming is acceptable.

Television is a video medium, yet TV stations' Websites are still dominated by text. In that sense, we are no different than the newspaper across town. The dramatic (and continuing) growth of broadband means an increasing opportunity to differentiate ourselves through our ability to provide video online, and we need to move forward quickly in this arena. Make no mistake about it, our newspaper brethren realize the importance of video on the Web, and new AP chief, Tom Curley, has promised to give it to them.

Video streaming is an expanding sub-industry, with enough different technologies to confuse even the best engineer. There are so many choices and so many decisions to make, and, amazingly, television sites are among the worst online in terms of providing simple, reliable video on demand. I'm sadly astonished whenever I click on the little camera icon on a typical TV station Web page and sit and wait and wait. Do we not understand that THIS is our lifeblood?

While engineers scratch their heads, as streaming company after streaming company make their pitches to us, the adult New Media industry has quietly invented everything we need. MPEG4 is THE protocol for full screen broadband video. The quality is sensational, and it can be delivered with a variety of player options. If my wish were to provide users with expandable video, I wouldn't go near anybody that wasn't on the cutting edge of MPEG4 technology. However, I don't think all users are going to want or need full screen pictures in a video-news-on-demand (VNOD) environment. If that were the case for me, I'd certainly opt for a playerless streaming technology, like the kind offered by EyeWonder. This technology plays instantly with a mouse click, and speed of use on the Internet makes amends for many deficiencies.

My recommendation would be to use both. Offer playerless streaming for people to view and decide if they want to see an MPEG4 version full screen.

Then there's the issue of how all this gets done on a day-in and day-out basis and in a cost-effective way. Some big broadcast companies are building their own mousetraps here, but the people at DayPort have a very nice software package that can handle everything automatically via the newsroom's computer and playback systems.

The ability to offer local video streaming is our biggest competitive advantage in the expanding world of New Media. As such, it ought to be a part of our core competency as a business. To view it any other way, I believe, is a mistake.

In the end, the Internet will not completely replace TV anymore than ready-to-eat will completely replace condensed soup. Those of us in the business, however, need to accept that our old ways of thinking and behaving are a net liability in a Postmodern world, for only in so doing will our minds to open to the overwhelmingly positive position we're actually in.

Mistakes are just mistakes, and the good news is they can be corrected.

© Terry L. Heaton