Local TV

Cover Story: Swim at Your Own Risk

Stations involved in content pools may save money. But they could also jeopardize ratings—and revenue 6/20/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Local television is increasingly looking like an episode of Survivor. In the six months since NBC and Fox officially launched the first content-sharing Local News Service (LNS) in Philadelphia, new station alliances have been popping up seemingly every week. He's in cahoots with her, and she's in talks about teaming up with that guy—all in the name of keeping the tiki torch aflame one more week. Phoenix alone has two separate alliances—the Meredith, Belo and Gannett stations have banded together on a helicopter, and the Fox, Scripps and Meredith outlets pool ground content.

Whether you call it “commodity coverage” or “press-conference coverage,” most broadcasters agree that the sitting targets they cover each day—the mayoral address, the ribbon-cutting—don't require five different camera crews. And as the strategy goes, those freed-up resources do way more good when redirected toward the stories that can have a lasting impact on the community.

Fox Senior VP of News Operations Sharri Berg says the LNS partnership in Philadelphia has already benefited viewers there. “It's allowed the stations to focus on the pieces that make them different,” she says. “With an increased story count, we're able to cover more community events and more local news.”

But as such partnerships become the norm, industry watchers are concerned about the long-term impact on local news. Research often reveals that viewers in a given market see the local newscasts as essentially the same. While it's easy to understand a station's desire to cut costs these days, some wonder if pooling only serves to lower local news' esteem in the eyes of viewers. A recent Frank N. Magid Associates study across multiple markets revealed that “noticeably unique local market content” is at an all-time low. “Content-gathering cooperatives, while offering tempting efficiencies, may ultimately be a slippery slope to a commodity position,” says Magid's Media Strategy Group President Steve Ridge. And in what sounds like a portent, Ridge adds, “Unique content that differentiates is the key to future success, if not survival.”

EVERYONE IN THE POOL!

The concept of TV rivals sharing content is not new. Networks have, of course, been pooling video on stories like presidential speeches for decades, and stations have shared footage of court cases.

About three years ago, executives from Young's KRON San Francisco, feeling the kind of financial pressure that the rest of the broadcasting world would eventually experience, approached two stations with a framework for sharing content in the Bay Area. The venture died, but the model has lived on. “The necessity was so great to cut expenses and find a new way of doing things,” says then-KRON President/General Manager Mark Antonitis. “Even then, everyone saw the merit of it.”

Nexstar has for years plugged a similar philosophy with its “virtual duopoly” strategy. Its stations provide sales and news services to a competing station in 70% of the markets where Nexstar owns an outlet. “We've been doing it since before it was cool,” quips President/CEO Perry Sook.

Early indications are that the 19-person LNS venture in Philly has been successful on many levels. Costs are down “significantly,” says WTXF VP/General Manager Mike Renda, the amount of fresh content has increased, and the principals say the competitive culture continues to thrive. Regarding station layoffs, LNS executives say downsizing has occurred for some time due to “bigger and broader issues with the economy,” and not as a direct result of LNS at this point.

“The feedback we've gotten is that this has gone as well as we expected,” says NBC Local Media President John Wallace. “We couldn't be more satisfied with the results.”

Fox O&O WTXF has added 20% more fresh content per day thanks to LNS, according to a spokesperson, with a wider variety of stories to choose from. Harry Hairston, investigative reporter at NBC O&O WCAU, says the arrangement has freed him up to chase down signature interviews while LNS does the legwork on video. One example saw Hairston report a story on criminals selling homes they didn't actually own; while LNS shot footage of authorities at a press conference, Hairston tagged along with police as they arrested the perpetrators.

“They'd already gotten the video I needed,” he says. “All I had to do was go after a special angle—the exclusive part for my piece.”

SAVINGS, BUT AT WHAT COST?

Viewers probably don't notice anything different about local newscasts after a share has launched. After watching both the Fox and NBC news programs in Philadelphia, Francesca Viola, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, says that “where they are sharing video is not immediately apparent to me.” In Chicago, where stations owned by Fox, NBC, CBS and Tribune kick in resources to LNS, Anne Johnsos, broadcasting lecturer at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, didn't see anything out of the ordinary in the local news after the alliance launched May 11.

But while sharing has become the norm everywhere from Los Angeles to Dallas to New York, some have opted out. Oftentimes it's the market leaders, who typically figure they'd be putting in more than they'd get out, and don't fancy the idea of propping up a “weak sister” in the market, as one broadcast veteran put it. In Atlanta, Cox's pacesetting WSB continues to go it alone as Fox, Meredith and Gannett stations share. “We really like our independence,” VP/General Manager Bill Hoffman says, “and are hopeful we can hold onto it.”

The same goes for Chicago and New York, where ABC-owned stations have declined invitations to pools involving stations owned by Fox, NBC, CBS and Tribune. “We remain convinced the way to stand out is to provide coverage in our own unique way,” says WLS Chicago President/General Manager Emily Barr. “I understand and respect the others' position, but we feel this is what we need to do to remain strong.”

Other broadcast executives express concern that stations trumpeting their pooling pact are reinforcing viewers' notions that the local newscasts are indistinguishable from one another. One executive at a sizable station group says the share concept is perfectly logical, but doesn't think chirping about it serves the stations. “Just do the damn things,” the exec says. “Don't send out a press release about it.”

Media watchdogs have also voiced concern about how pooling affects local news. The journalism think-tank Poynter Institute, for one, posted a half-dozen “hazards” of local news pooling on Poynter.org. The concerns include layoffs, weaker reporter-source relationships in a market's “halls of power,” and too much “who, what and where” at the expense of “why and how” in news stories.

While broadcasters acknowledge that even meager cost-cutting goes a long way in this economy, some are starting to wonder how much the savings outweigh the logistical headaches of a content share. WOIO/WUAB Cleveland VP/General Manager Bill Applegate says he's seen “modest savings” since commencing a video share with Gannett's WKYC in February. “In order for it to have a real economic effect, you need to have more than two stations participate,” he believes. “If you have four or five stations involved, then you'll see real savings.”

THE STORIES THAT MATTER

While the pool arrangement is a product of the foul economy, it's unlikely that the alliances will expire once the television business gets back on its feet. Fox, for one, plans to have pooling setups in place by the end of June for the 16 O&Os that produce news. Berg believes such shares are vital to Fox's continuing local strategy. “It's grown from a video-sharing partnership to a real breaking-news service,” she says of LNS.

Time will reveal how much extra Murrow-worthy reporting comes out of the arrangements; Applegate, for one, says pooling with Gannett simply allows the Raycom duopoly to sustain its current level of signature reporting in a harsh business environment. The content-share champions insist it is ultimately good for local news, and industry watchers are holding them to their word.

“If stations use it to free up resources for enterprise reporting, then something meaningful comes out of it,” says Bob Papper, professor and chair of journalism at Hofstra University. “If it's just about allowing stations to get rid of people, it has the potential to make a bad situation worse.”

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