The profs go to class
Industry, academic minds mix it up at IRTS seminar
P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/25/2001 7:00:00 PM
You stay in this business long enough and you could collect a small mountain of name tags; they are the litter of seminars gathered through a half-lifetime of half-listening to high-profile keynoters and worker-bee panelists.
The fact is, at most seminars, most of the speakers and most of the audiences are all on roughly the same page. We go to see some panels the way college kids go to see concerts: We already know most of the lyrics; we're just hoping for some improvisation.
Occasionally these things are different. Last week in New York, the International Radio and Television Society Foundation sponsored its 30th annual faculty seminar, at which, over a series of days, communications professors from dozens of universities got a chance to meet television power people.
These are unusual seminar-goers, in my book. The participants knew the media terrain, but they don't necessarily like every feature of the geography. So, at the one morning session I was with them, when the profs got a chance to grill NBC executives, one teacher from Queens College got up and disclosed that when he teaches "the unit on public interest, I find it very difficult to explain certain things. My students always think you're getting away with something."
During another session, one professor yelled at another one that her question to Matt Lauer revealed a bias.
The folks from NBC were cordial and even kindly responded to the professor from Duquesne who suggested broadcasters quit whining about regulation and instead participate in an auction of their own spectrum. In return for buying their space, the government would get out of their face.
What I thought was interesting was that the IRTS crowd seemed, in the best academic tradition, inquisitive, and filled with real regard for their students. About half the questions I heard from faculty members had something to do with positioning their students for the reality of an ever-changing workplace.
Dennis Swanson, the veteran general manager of WNBC-TV New York and co-chairman of NBC's Olympics, laid out in pretty straightforward terms how local news has changed, in ways that should make these professors ponder the future of their students. In a 24/7 news environment, he suggested, the idea of a local station doing a 4 o'clock newscast, or a noon newscast, is folly, though NBC stations pioneered some of those early afternoon newscasts in Los Angeles and Chicago.
But, Swanson said, "Those days have come and gone. We have to continue to adjust. There was no CNN at that time. There was no Fox. There was no CNBC. As those things evolve, the last things we need in these major markets is another hour of news."
Bill Bolster, the chairman of CNBC and himself an old television general manager who grew up in the heartland, went so far as to suggest that with a proliferation of all-news outlets and shrinking profit margins, the idea of local news at all may get dicey in smaller markets like the ones he once knew in Iowa.
The NBC braintrusts didn't really all agree, even if they seemed to dissent in an intelligently collegial way.
For while Bolster and Swanson seemed to have some fears about the local-news terrain, Randy Falco, the president of the NBC Television Network, also insisted (also correctly) that local news is the one essential product stations have that competitors don't. "What we own is news and information. That's the one thing we own. We finally figured that out."
I didn't hear any thunderbolts from the media execs, though IRTS likes to brag that in the past the faculty has fallen into some interesting situations. In 1990, the faculty analyzed Ted Turner's business style, while, I'm told, Turner sat-quietly-in the back of the room listening. (Was Ripley's Believe It Or Not! on the air then?)
In the five days the IRTS had its faculty seminar humming, members were to meet with everybody from analyst Tom Wolzien to former FCC chief Richard Wiley, and lots more.
The teachers also had been split into groups, all charged with analyzing the success of the Telecommunications Act at propelling competition, improving service to the public and reducing costs for consumers. I have a feeling they might have a tougher, smarter view of it than some of the panelists you'll hear the next time somebody hands you a name tag.
Bednarski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 212-337-6965.
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