Saturday, April 26

Good Night, and Good Luck

Egbert Roscoe Murrow was born on April 25th, 1908.

Friday, on what would have been Edward R. Murrow’s 100th birthday, I found little mention of the man and his legacy. The CBS News website has some old clips, and a quote from plaque that hangs in the lobby of the CBS Broadcast Center in New York: "His imprint on broadcasting will be felt for all time to come." The article makes it clear that if Murrow didn’t invent broadcast journalism—on both radio and TV—he shepherded both through their troubled adolescence, setting standards and hiring the men and women who made broadcast journalism an essential part of American life and brought CBS honor and accolades. He challenged future generations of journalists to strive for excellence, and he showed them what excellence was.

But the article fails to mention that when he got too controversial CBS effectively shoved him out the door. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

There’s a great line in the play “A Man for All Seasons.” I think I’ve got it down: “It’s easy to stay alive, friends. Just . . . don’t . . . make . . . trouble. Or if you must make trouble, make the kind of trouble that’s expected.”

When Murrow’s documentaries kept making the kind of trouble that cost CBS money, he found himself with less and less to do at the network. He made waves, not money, and occupied valuable prime-time territory. Before long the documentary unit created specifically by and for him was getting less air time and he was forced to share the (greatly lightened) load with others. He was, in effect, benched.

Finally, bitter and discouraged, he left in 1961 to take a position in the new Kennedy administration, working for the new President he had called "That boy." He choked back tears as he taped a farewell that was played in CBS stations and bureaus around the world; played for many who idolized him and owed their careers to him.

Cancer killed him in 1965, two days after his 57th birthday. So it goes.

Now, less than fifty years later, we’re shocked and saddened that CBS is shoving so many dedicated, successful broadcast journalists out the door at its owned-and-operated stations, and that the CBS Evening News is in such disarray. Why so surprised? CBS is just doing what it has done in the past. If they could do it to Murrow, what makes you think they can’t do it to you?

We should always remember what Murrow did for broadcasting.

We should never forget what CBS did to Murrow.

So it goes.

Wednesday, April 23

An "Obama" Moment

There you have it. Or, rather, there I have it: a quintessential "Tying My Shoes" moment. Last night I met "Obama Girl."

You know--the young lady who made a sudden splash on the Internet when YouTube posted a music video called "I got a Crush on Obama."

One of my consulting clients is News 13, a small cable operation in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Seen only on Service Electric Cable, and only in and around Hazleton, it reaches something like 60,000 homes, but is "Must See TV" in those homes. An unscientific survey says they may be doing a 90+ share of audience. Outrageous--and fun!

Anyway, Amber Lee Ettinger is from Hazleton, and she was home visiting her parents on primary election day, and stopped by the News 13 studios.

I'm sure you know her story. She's a model/actress now living in New York who was hired for the "Obama Girl" gig. She doesn't even sing in the video, it's a lip-synch.

She seemed like a smart, articulate young woman--and (of course) beautiful. Shes working hard to parlay her video fame (which has included an appearance on Saturday Night Live and an interview with Geraldo Rivera) into fortune as well. She's a graduate of NYC's Fashion Institute of Technology, and has plans for her own clothing line, and yada-yada-yada. She seems to have stretched her fifteen minutes in the limelight out longer. It'll be interesting to see where it takes her.

Anyway--I said "Hi," and had my "Tying My Shoes Moment." Nice kid. Seems to have her head screwed on pretty well. You can take the girl out of a small town, but--you know the rest.

Oh--and just in case you're one of maybe three people in the world with Internet access who hasn't seen it--here's Amber Lee Ettinger's music video.

By the way, she voted yesterday. For Barack Obama.



One last thought, about my friends at News 13. How great do you think it is to have a coverage area that measures (roughly) 12 X 12 miles????? Any must-cover story is ten minutes away! For someone who seems to have spent his career in a whole series of "hyphenated" markets with huge coverage areas, what a treat!

Thursday, April 10

What Are You Prepared to Do?

For the last two weeks the talk in the TV news "biz" has been the CBS O-and-O layoffs (160 and counting). Now it's word that Katie Couric may be jettisoned off the network news.

We've known about shrinking ratings and shrinking news revenues for quite some time. Apparently no one thinks broadcast news profits will grow again, so the solution is to shrink news budgets by lopping off high-priced talking heads.

OK. It's a new fact of life for a new kind of broadcast journalism. Maybe we drowned in our own belief that the gravy train could never be derailed.

I feel like John McCain talking about Iraq. There are going to be tough times ahead. The question: What are you prepared to do? The late Ron Tindigilia asked the question with the aid of this clip from "The Untouchables."



"What are you prepared to do?" You want to be the #1 television news operation in your market? It's easy to say you do--everyone will say it, because everyone wants to be #1. But really, what are you prepared to do? Will you put your money where your mouth is?

One of Ron's successors as news director at WABC in New York was Cliff Abromats. Cliff was (is) a driven man, who saw (sees) TV news as a contact sport. When we'd adjourn to "Chip's Pub" across Columbus Avenue after a newscast, he'd take a fistful of quarters and play "Eye of the Tiger" non-stop on the jukebox.
"It's the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight
Risin' up to the challenge of our rivals.
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night,
And he's watching us all with the eye of the Tiger."

Cliff, like Elliot Ness, would do "everything within the law" to achieve his goals. He had a "take no prisoners" mentality. But I'm not sure even Cliff could work his considerable magic in times like these.

There's good news, though, for a few of you. If you're #1 in news in your market, congratulations! You're likely to be #1 for some time to come. #2s will stay second, #3s will stay third. The pecking order will stay the same unless the top station somehow screws the pooch.

Why? It's simple. If you're #2 or #3 it's going to take time, talent and (almost undoubtedly) money to become #1. You're going to have to do more and do it better if you want to overtake the market leader. The #1 station has the incentive to spend enough to stay on top. Other stations won't want to ramp up the effort to do more and better on the outside chance it might turn into ratings and profit gains.

Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin' and dreamin' won't make it so. OK, maybe Dusty Springfield had part of it right: maybe plannin’ will work, but the planning has to be coupled with action. And the action it will take to pull away from the pack, to take on the leader and to meet the challenges of the future will probably take money, unless you can reinvent the wheel. Is the next Al Primo out there anywhere? When he dreamed up “Eyewitness News” it was a total break with broadcast journalism’s past. He held what everyone had been doing in TV in the palm of his hand—held it out at arm’s length—turned it over and examined it from all sides—and then came up with a complete departure from what had been the norm.

Is there a visionary out there who can see a new future for TV news?

I’m waiting.

One-man bands? The Internet? I'm just not sure.

Many years ago I took over the news department at a station that was #3 and trailing downward. We commissioned a major research project to help us decide which way the viewers wanted us to go. I told the project director, “I’ve always looked at the competition in news as a game of chess. I want to find out what’s important to the viewer—and what spaces our competition has occupied so we can figure out how to move around them.”

When the research came back, the consultants said, basically: “Bad news. They’ve got all the key spaces occupied, You can’t go around them. If you want to beat them, you’re going to have to go toe-to-toe with them and attack them at their strongest.”

Meaning—if the viewer sees investigative reporting as critically important, and the leader has two investigative reporters—set up an “I-Team” with five. If the audience thinks having a helicopter is important—lease two. If Mr. A is the #1 anchor in town—hire him, and Ms. B and Mr. C to boot. They send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue!

The consultants were asking us, “What are you prepared to do?”

That station was still #3 when I left. Now, many years later, it just went through a round of major cutbacks. They had the wishin' and hopin' parts down pat, but that was about all.

At WABC in the old days the answer to the "Untouchables" question was always, “We’re prepared to do more than you other guys. If it comes to a showdown, we'll meet you in the streets. We’ll out-man you and out-think you and out-hustle you and out-shoot you and out-report you. You bastards want to be #1, come and try to take it from us, but get ready to get bloody!”

Of course, we were playing for high stakes as the #1 station in the #1 market. There aren’t that many chips on the table anymore, and I don’t see the Primos, the Tindiglias, the Abromats waiting in the wings for a seat at the table. I see accountants.

I should have known it was coming, I got a taste of it when I worked for the old Storer Broadcasting. I've written here before about Storer. For a long time it owned some fine stations in some fine markets and turned a FINE profit. My first News Director's job, at the old WSPD-TV in Toledo, was for Storer back in 1975. I learned quickly how Storer viewed news:


“You want to be number one? Isn’t that going to cost us a lot of money?”
“You want to be number two? Fine. Spend some money, make some money.”
“You want to be number three? OK, just don’t spend anything, and we can still make a nice profit.”


So, in order of priority, Storer wanted to finish second. . . then third. . . then first. That's why, in most markets, Storer stations were second. . . or sometimes third. . . but rarely first. Even though there were big bucks to be made in those days, Storer didn't want to sit at the $500 blackjack tables. It was content to sit at the $2 tables. I guess you could say Storer was ahead of its time. Today no one is going to play “all in.”

Come to think of it, the Storer folks took the money and ran years ago--they got out of broadcasting altogether. I guess maybe they were farsighted men of genius. Isn't that the kind of pioneer spirit we could use today? Take the money and run? Get out while the getting is good?

I have this nightmare vision that at the next AP awards banquet they'll announce all-new categories: “Most Creative Reduction of Overtime,” “Most High-Priced Anchors Traded for Rookies” and “Least Amount Spent Per News Rating Point Achieved.” We're seeing a shift in the tectonic plates that underlie all of TV news. Ron Tindiglia wanted to know what price we'd pay for victory. I’m afraid that today's new breed of owners (all these "LLC" people) thinks any price is too great a price.

Forty years ago I got into this business because I wanted to be a broadcast journalist and save the world. As I became a news director I learned accounting, and labor relations, and even a little child psychology, but I still had the chance to do some news on the side.

OK, I'm coming to the end 0f this post. It's time for the snappy finish. Here's the part where I wrap the whole thing up in a bow, make a pithy point, and leave you (maybe) inspired and invigorated.

Nope, can't do it.

What do you think? Please comment.

By the way, this is a test. What are you prepared to do?

Friday, April 4

Cheese? What Cheese?

The future of television news is in doubt. There, I said it.

The CBS O-and-Os (Owned and Operated stations) have gone through a blood bath in the last week. Everywhere you turn, layoffs: huge cutbacks. Some long-time, big-name reporters, anchors and behind-the-scenes staff—men and women who have dedicated years to their craft and their stations—have been sent packing.

We all know that the television news audience is shrinking: cable and the Internet have taken their toll. It used to be you had to catch a dinner-hour newscast to be informed. Now the news comes to you when you want it, and in new ways. Fewer people are watching TV news than in times past; and the biggest source of revenue for any TV station, automotive ad sales, has dried up in this recession-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

Maybe I’m na├»ve, but I thought that the industry would at least survive (if not thrive) during a political year. My crystal ball didn’t include 2009, but I thought we’d make it through 2008 untouched. I was wrong.

It’s not just broadcasting. Editor & Publisher last week quoted stats that show newspapers just had their worst year for ad revenues in the last fifty!

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on out there: mine included.

Wait. Just a second. Maybe there are lessons to be learned in that 10-year-old motivational management book, Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. This slim volume made it onto the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover nonfiction bestseller list for 200 weeks. There are over five million copies in print.

Let’s see if I can condense it. Two mice and two miniature humans live in a maze. They roam around looking for—well, for whatever it is that satisfies mice and men. Down corridor “C” they find a large stockpile of cheese. Every day they return to that big pile. The pile shrinks, until one day there’s no cheese down corridor “C.” The mice, who had noticed the pile shrinking, had made plans to hunt for cheese in new places.

The humans made no such plans. They expected (contrary to evidence) that the cheese would last forever. “Where’s my cheese?” one of them asks. It’s got to be here. This is the right tunnel. (Humans have a lot invested in being right.)

The mice, meanwhile, started looking for a new source for the cheese. Mice don’t care about right, they care about cheese! They scurried around, and after some lean times finally found a new pile of cheese (new rewards, new satisfactions, new pleasures) down a corridor marked “N.”
The little humans kept going down “C” however. It’s the right tunnel! Before too long they started arguing about what to do. They were afraid.

One of the humans, on the verge of starvation, wrote "If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct" on the wall of “Cheese Station C”, and "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" His friend wouldn’t listen.

The first little human set out on his own. It was tough going at first, but he eventually found new sources of cheese, and new kinds of cheese as well! And along the way his journey taught him valuable lessons.

With a nod to author Spencer Johnson, here are the lessons the little human learned and wrote on the wall for all to see.

Change Happens
They Keep Moving The Cheese
Anticipate Change
Get Ready For The Cheese To Move
Monitor Change
Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old
Adapt To Change Quickly
The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese
Change
Move With The Cheese
Enjoy Change!
Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese!
Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again & Again
They Keep Moving The Cheese.
I hear him loud and clear. But here’s my dilemma. What if they stop making cheese altogether? I’ve been in the “cheese” business (broadcast journalism) for forty years. I was blessed enough to be in it when cheese was all people wanted or needed—when every night (it seemed) every home in America was tuned to a local newscast. In those times when television news was coming of age, I was coming of age. I was proud (OK, cocky), because I was convinced that what I did every day mattered to my co-workers and my community.

When I was a younger man, I promised myself I’d never be one of those old “Remember When” kinda whiners. Now I am one. I find I’ve been blogging more and more about WABC and my time there. I’ve said all along that I was there for the tail end of the Eyewitness News glory days: I had nothing to do with the creation of EWN as an art form (and you’re going to have to trust me, it was/is an art form). I was just a grunt doing his job: “another brick in the wall.” But damn, it was an important wall, and it was built by intelligent, dedicated people, and the work meant something.

I’ve had successes and failures since then. In my last news director’s job I was very successful at failing! I guess I was a broadcasting pioneer: I helped gut a once-proud newsroom long before CBS even thought about layoffs and cutbacks at its O-and-Os.

In my last job we grew the news “hole” by 25%, cut the staff by 20% (mostly by attrition), cut the budget by 25% and overtime by 70%. My bosses did everything in their power to get us out of the cheese business. And to (seriously) mix metaphors, I became a Nazi collaborator, a quisling: "Ach, velcome. You muzt be ekks-hausted avter your long train chourney. Vy don't you take a nize hot zhower???" I smiled on the outside while I was dying on the inside.

Why did I do it? Ego. Pure ego! I thought, “If I don’t do it, someone else will take my place, someone who doesn’t care about the journalism, or the staff, or the community. I’ll take the sleepless nights. After a lifetime spent trying to build newsrooms, I’ll help demolish this one—but I’ll try to do it in a way that as few people as possible get hurt.” The turnover rate at that station was so constant that I flatter myself not many actually realized how depleted the place was becoming. Or maybe they did and I didn’t know it. I was light-headed from going without cheese for so long.

One CBS executive was quoted this week saying something like, “Hey, we’ll still be doing the same amount of news—just with fewer people.”

Quisling!

I know what Spencer Johnson would say: “Why didn’t you read the signs—they were clear enough—that the TV news glory days were past? Why didn’t you move on?”

From news to what? From cheese to yogurt? I don’t like yogurt. I guess I can learn to make it, if the demand is there. Newspapers and TV are moving to “new media,” to the web. I guess that’s where we’ve got to go, but God Damn! I’ve seen some really wretched websites out there. The New York Times sold all its TV stations to make a big move into (and onto) the web. It looks OK. Are they going to avoid starvation, long-term? I don’t know. Newspaper people trying to tell stories with moving pictures still doesn’t work very well. Our print brothers and sisters don’t have the video sensibility yet.

I guess I don’t have any of the answers. Maybe the late Ron Tindiglia did. I’ll have to write a long post on Ron, his insights, his knack for news, his sense of humor and his humanity one of these days.

Just time for one story here. In his consulting days he would play clips from movies to illustrate his points, to rev up the troops. I think it was in Cleveland that he showed our staff a clip from “The In-Laws,” that hysterical Peter Falk/Alan Arkin comedy from the 70s. Not this scene, but the one where the two are being shot at. Falk starts dodging the bullets, running madly back-and-forth, side-to-side, all the while yelling at Arkin, “SERPENTINE.” That was Ron’s advice for when times got tough.

Spencer Johnson may know about foodstuffs. I think instead of “Where’s my cheese?” I should be shouting, ”SERPENTINE.”

Tuesday, April 1

No Thanks

We knew we were headed for disaster. It was one of those "OK, we've only got ten fingers, how many holes are there in the dike?" kind of days.

Yet somehow we pulled it off. We walked the tightrope without falling off. Insurmountable problems were...well, for lack of a better word...surmounted! Obstacles were cleared. The Marines would have been proud: we improvised, we adapted, we overcame!

And when it was all over I went to the General Manager with a suggestion: How about a memo to the staff recognizing the achievement and thanking them for the effort.

The guy had a reputation as being both disinterested and uninterested in the news. The talk around the station was that he didn't even know the names of most of the staff, and I believe it. I never gave him a quiz, but I saw him many times when the situation called for a "Hi, Tom" (Or "Dick" or "Harry" or "Harriet") and he gave it a "Hiya" instead.

Anyway, I thought a pat-on-the-back note would be not just appropriate, but also an important display of leadership.

And he said: "We don't thank people for doing their jobs."

Want to guess where that poor, dumb sumbitch is today?

(Hint: he's not in broadcasting, and we're all better for it.)

Over the years, I've been accused of being insincere. My cheerleading is over the top at times. I'll admit it. My highs are very high, my lows are very low. Maybe I'm manic-depressive, don't know. But that bastard idled along in neutral for all the time I knew him, and he stripped a lot of the fun away from what we were doing.

He made working for him a job. My best bosses have made working for them a shared adventure.