The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
2004: Time For Action
January 2004

by Terry L. Heaton

I was out and about with the holiday shopping crowds over the weekend and met a nice young fellow named Eric at the local Electronics Express store. I was searching for a headset for my girlfriend's cellphone, and Eric was the helpful employee who waited on me. I can't resist doing research when talking to guys like this, so we walked around the store and wound up staring at Pioneer's prototype TiVo/DVD recorder (drool). They're pretty expensive, so I'm going to wait until next year, but it gave me a chance to talk to Eric about the whole Personal Video Recorder (PVR/DVR) trend. He's had a TiVo for a couple of years.

"When was the last time you watched a commercial?" I asked. "Never," he responded with a grin so big it that it pushed his ears back. "I work eleven hours a day," he added, "and I don't have time for commercials." I smiled back at him.

I smiled, because this is a classic Postmodern statement. Eric isn't saying he doesn't like commercials because they interrupt his viewing or that they're repetitive and generally banal. He zaps them, because they're a waste of his time time that technology is helping him to better manage. And the truth is we would all do the same thing if we could. A new report by PhaseOne Communications shows there are 52 minutes of promotional clutter in a typical three-hour prime time block on the four networks. That's nearly one-third of prime time given over to sales. Who wants to give up an hour out of three to sit there and watch commercials? Hello?

The empowerment of the individual over the institution is at the heart of Postmodernism, and it's something institutional businesses, such as broadcasting, aren't easily accepting. And in our denial, we're wasting a lot of our time (and resources) pushing the same old rock up the same old mountain with the same old (and tired) muscles.

I was discussing this with a broadcaster friend recently, trying to argue the need to move forward with transitioning to a multi-media business model. Time, I said, was the enemy. "Terry," he said, "most of our people are so busy bailing water out of the boat that they don't have time to even think about painting the deck." The frustration that broadcasters feel is very real and disheartening, but the truth is if you're digging a hole and find that you can't get out, the first thing you need to do is to stop digging. Or, to use my friend's illustration, stop bailing the boat and find one that'll carry you to your destination.

The weekly print trade publication Editor & Publisher has discovered this and is acting on it. In January, the 120-year-old publication returns to a monthly magazine for the first time since 1898. The company is taking all those resources and putting them where the growth is online. Their new Website will function like six separate news outlets: Business, Newsroom, Advertising/Circulation, Technology, Syndicates and Online Journalism. They're getting out of the weekly publication boat and putting their money in a new boat that they see taking them into the future. I couldn't agree with this strategy more.

As a growth industry, television is dead. Put a fork in it. It's done. Let the boat sink. Staff it with a skeleton crew that'll take it as far as it can go, but don't put energy and money into it. Instead, put those resources to work on a boat that'll eventually float even more than our current cargo.

Time is indeed the enemy. My overall New Year's resolution for the industry is this: 2004 must be an action year! It's certainly not a time to feel safe with revenues padded by the Olympics and elections. Stockholders simply must be made to face the truth, because 2005 will be devastating otherwise. If they, in fact, own the company, they must see that their entire investment is at stake, because status quo is a death sentence. Why do you think Wall Street analysts are downgrading many broadcasting stocks?

For all my broadcaster, rock-pushing friends, here's a list of 10 sub-resolutions that we might consider as the New Year dawns:

1. Get control of our Web presence, for it is the keel of our new boat. Regardless of the cost, this is critical if we wish to be competitive downstream. We don't understand the Web, so we let others do it for us. We need to get into the database-marketing world, which means registering our users. We don't need to be intrusive about it, but zip code, age and sex would be helpful. The whole advertising industry is drifting away from reach and frequency, and we need to be prepared to go with them. Targeted advertising is where it's at, and we need to have control over our Web properties in order to do it properly.

2. Use existing resources to staff a multi-media production/distribution facility. Just as the production department has served the technical side of local television, so there needs to be multi-media producers to develop content for our Web properties. Our sales department needs rich media ads to sell, and we need to be able to make them.

3. Come down from broadcasting's holy mountain. The antenna that gave us protected business status in the past is a significant hindrance in our ability to do business in a Postmodern world. It blinds us to the realities made available by technological advances. It governs the way we think, and that needs to change. We're no longer the monolithic entity that reaches a mass audience. We're on the street, amongst the people, doing business with them in an up-close and personal way.

4. Use New Media ourselves. Tap into the world of RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Provide key people with innovations like TiVo, wireless Internet, camera phones and more. We will never understand the new world unless we're living in it ourselves. Not only will we find these innovations less threatening, but experiencing them will open our creative eyes too.

5. Learn everything we can about rich media advertising. Assign one person in sales to be our expert and liaison with the production staff. This person's sole mission is to research and provide a daily report to account executives on what's happening in the world of new media advertising. Provide regular training for our sales people. We'll need to be able to hit the streets with cutting-edge concepts before everybody else, so the knowledge of such things is critical to doing business downstream.

6. Rewrite our business plan. Take our team to a weekend retreat and zero-base everything. We have all the resources we need to build our new boat, but we have to clear away "the way we've always done it" in order to see that. Put a list of our resources on the wall and ask ourselves this question: "If we were starting a new media business with these resources, what could we do to make money?"

7. Carefully examine the BBC's VJ newsroom model for its viability as a more journalistically efficient and cost-effective way to do local news. This concept provides an all-around flexibility that simply cannot be obtained with 2-person crews and separate editors. Everybody becomes a reporter. Everybody. Producers have vastly more material with which to use, and pieces edited on laptops can immediately be used anywhere in our multi-media distribution system. Downstream, this will facilitate hiring independent journalists and permitting employees to telecommute from time-to-time.

8. Pay attention to what our city's newspaper(s) is doing online. The local paper is our new biggest competitor, not the guys across the street. The print industry has been struggling with disruptive innovations longer than we have, and publishers have been more willing to experiment than broadcasters. As a result, they're already blazing the trails we'll be soon walking. If they're not, then the market's wide open. Take a look at papers in other cities that are pioneering concepts.

9. Accept that this is a time of change. Along with that comes the realization that mistakes will be made, that people as a rule don't like change, and that this will be a time of our greatest management challenge. We should involve our people in the transition for two reasons. One, they probably have great ideas; and two, they won't feel quite as threatened by the process. The process of building our new boat begins with acceptance.

10. Get to know our customers (viewers) better. We've always considered viewers as a whole or in demographically separated groups, and we've spent a lot of money in trying to understand those groups. But the age of the mass audience is fading, and media shops aren't talking about CPMs and GRPs anymore. They're studying human behavior and talking about things like "engagement," "attentiveness," and the newest buzzword of all, "context." The marketing world is upside-down now, with consumers clearly in the driver's seat. We need to find new ways to define them, ways that steer us clear of the self-defeating traps of intrusion and manipulation.

The quest to break free from the bonds of time and distance is as old as the human race, but technology is now helping us push both envelopes. My salesman friend, Eric, is one of those who demands that his time be his. This is the world into which we are moving (and have already stepped a foot or two inside). It's an important piece of information to acknowledge, I think, for technology is merely the servant of the force that's driving the Postmodern era. The force itself is people.

© Terry L. Heaton