There's plenty of doom and gloom—and shootings and fires and highway pileups—in Chicago’s TV news. But WMAQ seeks to counter the downer mix with some upbeat content—individuals and companies and clubs doing right by Chicagoans—reported under the banner Making a Difference. The segments debuted in the news in January, and WMAQ launched a spinoff franchise—what David Doebler, president and GM, calls “solutions-driven” stories sporting the brand of Aim for Peace—this fall.
It’s not an overhaul of the NBC owned station’s news strategy, but the segments do show a station trying to offer a better balance of what goes on in the Windy City. “We’re still covering the tough stories, but crime can be tough for people to watch,” said Doebler. “It can’t be all depressing. You have to give them some inspiration.”
A number of stations have kicked off positivethemed franchises in their news, including WKBW Buffalo’s Good Things Happening, KNTV San Jose’s Bay Area Proud, WTTG Washington’s Pay It Forward and WLEX Lexington, which also has reports titled Making a Difference. Several local TV leaders cite “balance” when discussing the content philosophy. “Viewers’ appetites for news are not limited to one thing,” said Laura Clark, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates. “You want the newscast to refl ect what’s going on in the market, and some of that is positive.”
What’s the Good News?
Station insiders offer a range of reasons why local TV newsrooms are playing up the positive. One is that consumers are processing a full slate of misery in the national news these days, from Ebola reaching the U.S. to ISIS plotting world domination, and the continued dysfunction in Washington. Sean McLaughlin, VP of news at Scripps, said there’s no mandate from corporate to cheer things up. But local news leaders in the group are encouraged to strive for a balance of tone. “When we look at the product collectively, we say, are we giving people an opportunity to breath?” he said. “There’s a lot happening right now; is it to the point where people have reached overload?”
Scripps’ 4 p.m. program The Now, McLaughlin adds, is a good platform for some of the less negative stories.
As stations increase their focus on social media, it’s possible some are co-opting the more upbeat tone of ubiquitous platforms such as Facebook. That social media monolith is a primary driver of traffic to station sites, said Steve Schwaid, VP of digital strategy at consulting outfit CJ&N. “People click more often on stories that inspire, give hope, are uplifting,” he said. “We see people engage a lot with those stories.”
Parsing the research to find what news viewers truly want to watch is tricky. Respondents constantly bemoan the crime and suffering on local TV, but the ratings tell a far different story, say multiple insiders. Conversely, viewers say they want more positive stories, but a newscast featuring too much happy content would die a quick and ignominious death, many believe.
Even The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has addressed the depressing nature of TV news today. A recurring bit shows NBC affiliate anchors delivering exceedingly positive, if bogus, happenings in their markets—reports full of cuddly puppies, muffins and traffic-free commutes. “Republicans and Democrats have struck a deal to just be cool with one another,” reported DeMarco Morgan, anchor at WATL Atlanta, on an installment of “I’ve Got Good News and Good News” that aired last week. The bits, Fallon explained, counter all the misery in the news.
So do the John Knicely-helmed Knicely Done segments at WOWT Omaha. Negative stories stick in people’s minds much more than the positive ones, said Vic Richards, VP and general manager. But wellbranded and marketed good news can be just as sticky. “It’s good to know people who live right around you are doing great things,” he said.
Such segments seem particularly in fashion in the markets that could use a bit of good news. Since last year, WKBW has been featuring Good Things Happening in the 5 p.m. news, a result of a resurgent economy in Buffalo, said Michael Nurse, VP and general manager, and research revealing that people want a break from the bummers. “It’s easier to do bad news—it comes to you on the scanner,” he said. “You have to dig a little deeper for the good news stuff.”
EBOLA: THE ULTIMATE MOVING TARGET IN DALLAS
With Dallas the ground zero of Ebola in the U.S., stations in DMA No. 5 are working tirelessly to cover what is for many an unprecedented story. As the primary informers for scores of residents, the TV newsrooms are faced with tough decisions about educating the public while avoiding stoking hysteria.
“It’s a national story, but it’s our hospital and our town,” said Carolyn Mungo, executive news director at WFAA. “We’ve got a community on edge, and we’re in a position to truly provide a public service.”
The news stations, including KTVT, KDFW, KXAS and KUVN, have been breaking in regularly for press conferences and updates since Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed Sept. 30. WFAA held a town hall at a theater Oct. 15 and hosted live Web chats with doctors addressing users’ many questions. “Shoot straight and be thorough,” said Mungo of the coverage. “Explain, explain, explain.”
The stations will stay on the story, while getting reinforcements from other stations in their groups. “It takes a strong effort to thoroughly and calmly serve the viewers on a story like this around the clock,” Susan Tully, KXAS VP of news, said via email.