Here's to Local Yokels

It's what television was, and could be again
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I can't tell you how much fun it was for me to read our page-one story about Post-Newsweek's new local variety show Gimme the Mike!, which, for the first time in a long time, applies the practice-what-you-preach ethic and runs with it, I hope, right to the bank.

The station group has been airing the local variety show—which derives its popularity, no doubt, in part from American Idol—in three markets where it owns stations. Now it's going to begin selling the format to other stations nationwide. I hope it's a big hit.

Virtually any time you put two local television executives together in a room and ask them what makes them so special, they'll extol the virtues of being "local." Their station belongs to the community.

And yet there's never anything local on at all, except for news.

That's quite an exception, I'll grant you, but I've never figured out why stations in decent-size markets couldn't economically create versions of many of the game and talk shows they now buy from syndicators, and turn a profit. And get a rating. And create an image.

At a time when syndicated shows struggle to deliver a 2 rating, how much danger is there that a local show would do worse?

Local television may be part of that serving-the-public-interest malarkey, but it's kind of charming. I have a feeling the contestants on Gimme the Mike!
aren't quite as good as the contestants on American Idol.
But you know what? They're local, and that's definitely a lure.

In my 30s, when I lived in Cincinnati, WLWT(TV), the old Avco station there, aired talk shows featuring local institutions like Ruth Lyons (who hid her microphone in a spray of flowers she walked around with), Paul Dixon (whose show began with a camera wildly zooming in on the sometimes-parted legs of women in the audience, I kid you not) and later Bob Braun (a genial guy whose talk show was said to be the inspiration for Fernwood 2Nite).
Most of these shows also aired on the three Avco stations in surrounding Columbus, Indianapolis and Dayton.

These shows verily shouted local especially when, every once in a while, this girl from Kentucky, Rosemary Clooney, would show up, or maybe a baseball player or Victor Borge as he was passing through town. When you walked through WLWT before Braun's show was about to begin, you'd see housewives and kids waiting to be seated who were unabashedly excited about the experience of being on television and at a station.

Up I-75 from Cincinnati is pretty unsexy Dayton, where Avco owned WLWD(TV). Unlike Cincinnati, where celebrities sometimes
visited, nobody came to Dayton. So, in 1967, when Avco put on some guy named Phil Donahue, he had to talk about issues. That's all he had. He talked about abortion and acupuncture and cross-dressing and atheism. For some reason, one of his most controversial shows involved anatomically correct dolls' being sold by a local department store. He talked about feminism. Before you saw Gloria Steinem on the Today
show, I'd bet you, she was on Donahue's show a half dozen times. She was, at the time, the kind of no-name who would fly there.

Nowhere is often the birthplace of invention.

Today, take a look at HGTV, that beautiful network that makes Scripps a ton of money by showing nicely done and inexpensively produced shows about interior decorating and arts and crafts. Look, too at the success of Martha Stewart in her bygone innocent days.

And then consider that, in Charlotte or Dallas or Kansas City or Hartford, there's probably a flamboyant designer, an arty chef, a too-much-time-on-her-hands housewife and a would-be producer, and all of them would be willing to duplicate some part of HGTV on local TV. Stations could air commercials from local hardware stores, nurseries, and gourmet food shops. It's simple, and I'd bet it could pay off.

Who's not in this picture? The general manager who has the nerve to try it. Local television has been out of the local-television business for so long, there's no one left to teach GMs how to do it. But they should look at some old tapes. It might be a good time to relaunch the broadcasting business.

Bednarski may be reached at
pbednarski@reedbusiness.com

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