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?