The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
Re-thinking News Promos

by Terry Heaton

"It's not even safe to walk to your car in daylight anymore," the local anchor announced as we watched surveillance video of an assailant with a box cutter chasing a woman in a mall parking lot. Welcome to the world of news "teases."

The video was certainly compelling and the story interesting, but it had nothing to do with whether it was safe for "me" to walk to "my" car in daylight. This ridiculous conclusion was part of the station's prime-time promotion of its late newscast, where it's deemed necessary to relate upcoming stories with the viewers at home by focusing attention on how it might effect them. It was textbook "tease" or "topical promotion" writing, and, delivered with just the right air of concern, it was enough to scare the crap out of anybody.

And we wonder why our country is driven by fear these days.

So it is in the world of local news, where the content itself is supposed to be governed by ethics, but anything goes in the name of driving people into the tent. Despite considerable evidence that this practice is abhorred by viewers and that it's actually turning people away from news programs, it's still considered a fundamental necessity in the "how to" book of local news. Moreover, the manipulative language has become an essential part of the newscast itself, as we attempt to "drive" viewers from one segment to another.

In my 1998 essay, The Lizard on America's Shoulder, I wrote about the history of this.

Experiments with attention-getting concepts to maintain market share began, and thus was born the news consultant. What "worked" anywhere was winnowed from that which didn't "work" and was spread from city to city. The exploitation of base human emotion, disguised by words like "compelling," dramatic," or "interesting" became the draw. When the Nielsen company created meters to put in viewers’ homes that directly measured viewing habits, these resourceful "experts" came upon a whole new way of doing things. Almost overnight, local television news was transformed into the business of managing audience flow, and along with it, I believe, came a sad disrespect of things once sacred.

Of paramount importance in this paradigm is the development of stories that attract, so that promotional announcements cleverly placed in, say, prime time would compel viewers to stay and watch. At the expense of that which was important, news managers suddenly found themselves devoting considerable time, effort and resources into finding and developing offbeat, titillating and sensational items for the promo boys to use. And now, only a mist separates all of television news from up-front exploiters like Jerry Springer.

The managing of audience flow is now clearly the business of television and television news. Nobody cares about image anymore. It's how you get a viewer from point A to point B. This is an archaic and dangerous practice in our new world, a hole that stations have dug for themselves by repetition of something that has been disrespecting and insulting the intelligence of TV viewers for too long.

It begins with the false notion that audiences can be managed. The idea gives business managers a sense of importance in controlling their own destiny, and it's built the careers of many. But let's think about it for a minute. In Postmodern America, the consumer is increasingly in charge of their own experience. Disruptive innovations in technology have turned the idea of passive participation into something that belongs in a museum. As Rishad Tobaccowala of Starcom Mediavest Group says, we've entered an empowered era in which humans are God, because technology allows them to be godlike. "How will you engage God?" he asks. Well, you certainly don't try to "manage" Him.

It's just not a top-down world anymore, and we can't see that we've been a part of its destruction. Consider the language we use. We're trying to "drive" viewers. Who wants to be driven? We're "teasing" viewers. Who wants to be teased? We're "compelling" viewers. Who wants to be compelled? And we manipulate viewers as if we think they don't know they're being manipulated. Guess what? They see through it and the evidence is everywhere.

I had the opportunity to examine Nielsen diaries on behalf of a major-market client last year. While stations live and die based on Nielsen ratings, you'd be surprised at how few make the effort to actually read the dairies. They offer far more than viewing preferences. They're a window into the worlds of individual viewers and their families alike — little stories that help paint an overall picture. As such, they provide a wonderful context within which to view change.

Over and over again, people wrote in the comments section of these diaries how much they disliked news teases. Not only did these people freely note how much they hated the practice, they were also quite accurate in their understanding of what was going on. They know what we're doing, and they think it's silly. We're not fooling anybody, except perhaps ourselves.

You can get the same kind of feedback by interviewing former news watchers. The industry doesn't do much of that, preferring instead to focus on existing news viewers. This gives station groups and researchers a slanted view of what's really taking place.

The greatest evidence of the public's distaste for the practice is that they're turning away in droves. When people fast-forward ads with their TiVos, do we honestly think they're pausing to watch the upcoming news announcements? When TiVo says users regularly skip commercials, they're referring to ALL promotional announcements. Tobaccowala's new "God" wants nothing to do with wasting time.

George Schroeder, former head of Washington Post Interactive, noted in a recent essay that people these days "don't want to be told what to do, think about, or enjoy."

For traditional media and distribution channels to embrace the power of the individual, it will take some significant rethinking about how they do business, how they will make services available when the individual is the aggregator, what their cost structures and perks are, and what life is like in an anti-monopolist world. In a word, it will take innovation, and innovation across the board - from product and services to business models to mind-sets.

But before we can get to any of that innovative thinking, we've got to first stop digging the hole in which we find ourselves.

Promotion "experts" and consultants will no doubt argue with this thesis, but their argument begins with the notion that they can prove that cleverly written teases will "move" people from one daypart to the next. This hides a more important question: just because we can, does that mean we should?

And what's their evidence that it works? Nielsen in-home meters.

These devices were introduced in the mid 1970s and are now available in 56 markets in the U.S. They automatically record and store minute-by-minute tuning records for channel, time of day, and duration of tuning. Hence, managers in metered markets can get direct feedback in terms of what works in delivering or turning away viewers. Meters, the argument goes, scientifically measure viewer behavior, and you can't argue with that. The problem, of course, is that meters tell you nothing about people who are no longer viewers.

The same practices can be found in non-metered markets. News consultants, stations groups with metered and non-metered markets and managers with metered market experience have spread the emphasis on managing audience flow throughout all 250 markets. They can't get the immediate feedback that comes from Nielsen meters in markets that don't have them, but that doesn't stop the topical promotion juggernaut. And budding producers in smaller markets who covet the big money of bigger markets learn quickly that the one who can deliver the best in terms of this kind of promotional announcement will get the good jobs. Everybody does it, because, well, that's the way it's done.

Before meters, stations depended on what were called "image" and "proof-of-performance" promotions to build their audiences. The stronger the station's image in the market, the more likely that station would have the top newscasts. The closest they came to topical promotions was a little 60-second headline presentation during prime time.

In the early days, images were developed in the minds of the audience, and it wasn't always what a station said that mattered. It was more what stations did. Soon, however, stations began experimenting with various types of slogans and images in an effort to bring self-determination into the picture. After all, the ability to "plant" an image in the minds of consumers is the core of mass marketing trickery.

And at most stations now, image promotion has taken a back seat to topical promotion, and that has likely contributed to the overall decline in news viewing.

That's because, in reality, a station's or industry's image isn't necessarily determined by the efforts of the station or the industry. The less stations talk about image, the more likely a default image emerges — one selected by the audience — and that's exactly what's happening to broadcasting today.

An image rests in the mind of the viewer, and that is determined by many factors, including likes and dislikes, habits, and so forth, and the public image of television news is pretty bad these days. A station's insistence on the kinds of topical promotions noted above leaves an impression with viewers that sticks. When everybody does it, the subsequent image is widespread and highly negative. It is precisely this "image" that is turning people away.

"I hate these stupid ads. I've complained about these stupid ads. Nobody cares what I think. I'm going elsewhere." They have weighed us in the scale of usefulness and found us wanting. They're exercising their right to look elsewhere, and we're left holding the bag.

And as much as we'd like to blame our audience travails on technology and competition, the truth is we've not done much to help. Embracing the power of the individual begins with what we do on-the-air, so that's where we need to begin. Common sense needs another chance in broadcasting, and that means giving up on a few things that we've perhaps come to believe are absolutes.

We need to do a real gut check, and make the effort to listen to what people who've gone away are telling us. They're tired of our bull. They're tired of being scared. They're tired of being insulted and disrespected. And they're tired of being taken for granted. Then, we need the courage to act accordingly.

It's difficult to imagine a world of television news without hyperbole, because it would be such a jolt. Perhaps it's just a matter of degrees. Regardless, something needs to be done, because our hype is killing us.

© Terry Heaton