Wednesday, February 25, 2009

But Sirius-ly Folks.....

Hi Gang. Today's lesson is: How to kill the golden goose. Or the maybe golden dog.

Let's go back to early 2005. CBS Radio was making obscene profits, Howard Stern was being labeled obscene by FCC Chair Kevin Martin, and Sirius and XM were about to go on an obscene spending spree trying to beat each other into submission.

Fast forward to 2009: CBS Radio has fallen so far it seems like it's impossible to get back up again, Howard Stern could be a lot more obscene but isn't, and Sirius has beaten XM into submission.

Despite assurances to the contrary, I am afraid my beloved Sirius is about to become exactly the type of monolithic, out of touch company that I despise.

The first sign: Summer, 2008- Super Shuffle is pushed to online delivery only, then disappears from the web site after the merger. I know it's borderline pathetic that I care about this. But let me do some 'splainin', as Ricky Ricardo might say.

Once upon a time, when I was just a young lad, there was this radio station. It wasn't just some radio was THE station. The Buzzard. If you didn't grow up during this time, you probably will never understand the tremendous impact of The Buzzard, WMMS. It was like a cool, secret clubhouse where your parents would never even think of visiting. And the music was awesome.

One of the things that I used to love about the early Buzzard was that they would never allow themselves to be boxed in musically. They wouldn’t hesitate to go from a rock song to a country song, straight on into classical if they felt like it. It was whatever they felt like. And it was really cool.

Of course, eventually the suits insisted that the mighty Buzzard had to become more like other stations, which made it common. It was like the kid from school who always dressed up really vintage punk suddenly showed up wearing Hollister. It was just wrong.

So fast forward again to 2006. I buy a Sirius radio when Stern moved from broadcast airwaves to satellite signals. And I trip upon Super Shuffle. Super Shuffle really reminded me of the Buzzard…no real format, just lots of music. They might go from “Ring of Fire” to “Girls on Film” to “I Love This Bar.”

And it was awesome.

Not only because of the vast Sirius library, but because there were no blathering DJs filling my radio with the same tired and trite nonsense about K-Fed and Britney. Like the “Jack FM” format, Super Shuffle relied on variety of music and very little nonsense from air talent.

Even more: on Saturdays, they would bring in special guest hosts who would come in and play anything they wanted. Tom Petty’s show was awesome. And believe it or not, Jerry Springer’s show was probably one of the best I’d ever heard.

Super Shuffle was cool. It was hip. It was odd. And so of course, it had to die.

Now listen, I’ve been around the block enough to know the futility of what I’m about to admit. In fact, I am somewhat embarrassed by what I am about to say.

I wrote a letter to Sirius.

You know, the agitated listener whining about the format change that is based on pretty solid data showing nobody listened?

But I listened.

And I don’t count.

So Sirius sent me the perfunctory auto-response thanking me for writing and assuring me they would take my opinion into account.

And then they pulled Super Shuffle from the web site. It was dead.

Fast forward to February 2009. Sirius sends me an email announcing that not only are they no longer offering Super Shuffle, but now in order to keep my ability to listen online, I will have to pay extra. No more freebies.

And oh, by the way, even though we agreed to the FCC condition’s on the merger with XM about not raising prices for a period of time, we didn’t agree to not raise other things…so secondary subscriptions are going up and we are un-bundling the online listening from the radio package.

Then last week, the truth was revealed. Sirius needs a bailout. Too much debt, too little liquidity. (Read all about it here.)

Honestly, I am not sure if I will continue on as a Sirius subscriber. Super Shuffle is gone. Howard is talking retirement when his 5-year deal is up in late 2010. Why keep forking out hundreds of dollars for product that is progressively growing weaker (my opinion) and costing me more?

But man, I really do miss The Mighty Buzzard. I would run back to radio if only somebody somewhere had enough guts to program music without bashing the same 12 songs into my head on a short rotation. I’ve heard enough Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin to last me for the rest of my life. But maybe once in a while somebody could play a little Artful Dodger? Squeeze? Johnny Cash? Wilson Pickett? Wilco? Stabilisers?

Good thing I bought me a new radio with an iPod input. Maybe the right playlist will be my salvation. I will program my iPod to generate lists called “Buzzard Radio”. And I will wish that I still had Matt, Denny, Leo, Crash, Bash, and Boom to talk to me in between songs.

Dr. Phil Hoffman is General Manager of The University of Akron’s Z-TV. He is also starting to sound like a crabby old guy wishing for the Good Ole Days when music was awesome and you kids today just don't get it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

And PINGO is its name, oh!

Each day we see news of changes in how media companies are operating, many of those changes driven by the fact that advertising revenues are down, and of course those ad revenues are down because of the larger economic problems facing this trouble. 

Just in the past few days, Channels 19 and 3 announced an agreement to start pooling video.  What this really means is obviously something that we won’t really know for some time now, but the mere fact that there is an agreement seemed like something that was impossible just a few short years ago.  Washington DC station WUSA’s announcement a few weeks ago that it was moving towards the VJ’s (video journalists) or MOJO’s (mobile journalists) was another example of the unthinkable:  a large market sending out “one-man-bands.” 

For those of you not in the know, that’s short for sending one person out to shoot and report on a story. 

I would argue that this activity might be a precursor to an even bigger change in how business is done.  Let’s assume that the economy takes a while to improve…if that’s so, what I am about to describe to you may come to pass sooner rather than later.  But rest assured my friends; I believe this is going to come to pass because there is mounting evidence that in small ways, it is already happening.

Shout it:  “PINGO!”  It’s not a wacky new version of Bingo!  “PINGO” is my term (if you intend to rip me off here, please at least have the courtesy to cite your sources!) for what we are likely to see as the future of newsgathering…

Platform Independent News Gathering Organization.  PINGO. 

A company that exists to cover local news markets and generates news content in a variety of forms (video, audio, online) for a group of clients (broadcasters, newspapers).  This means that the new company, let’s say PINGO-Akron, consists of a news team of multi-taskers who write in the hybrid AP print-online style and generate audio and images for clients. 

Does this mean fewer voices and fewer points of view?  Probably.  Does this mean that station(s) will have to work with the PINGO-Akron folks to arrange for anchors?  Maybe.

Can stations resist the incredible savings to them if they no longer have to pay all those people?  Can they resist the savings afforded to them by no longer having to invest in the kind of infrastructure needed to carry on newsgathering today?  I’m talking about tens or hundreds of thousands invested in cameras, news vehicles, live links, and editing infrastructure? 

Now I know the skeptics out there will argue “what about breaking news?  What about enterprise?” 

The GM’s meanwhile will ask “what about a return to higher profit margins?”  Stations will always need a couple of cameras, maybe a Final Cut workstation or two, but the kind of investment needed today would mostly be gone tomorrow if one decides to play PINGO. 

Listen:  is there anybody out there more capable of making this a reality than the AP?  The AP model, which may have seemed outdated a few years ago, now is looking quite smart.  A modest change in their practices and some investment in infrastructure could have the AP brand ruling the airwaves and Internet in a new way.  A way that turns TV stations into conduits for local content, which can easily be branded for each station.  One only has to look at Time Warner’s late 1990s experiments in doing that in Florida to see that it can be done.

AP already provides a significant chunk of the content for The Akron Beacon Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Why not TV too? 

And there are other models.  Rubber City Radio Group in Akron is a trio of radio stations.  And they could have easily chosen to remain just that.  But the combo of News Director Ed Esposito and PD Chuck Collins have created something that was quite interesting:  Akron News Now

Akron News Now is a web site that the station’s news team, one of the best in Ohio, keeps up dated with local stories, and sometimes video.  Now skeptics can say “sure, but they’re using consumer cameras.”

Have you WATCHED TV lately?  When you’re station is running clips from You Tube, does the gear really matter anymore? 

Nope.  We can all complain and hide our heads….or we can gather up our chips and start getting ready to play PINGO.  The folks at Rubber City Radio already have a bunch of chips on the board.  The folks at the Beacon are putting video online.  Fox 8 seems to spend more time promoting it’s Twitter feeds, new website,  and Facebook contests than actually reporting recently. 

If the economic times don’t improve, PINGO will be playing at a station near you within 36 months from today, 2/18/09.  Mark your calendar, and prepare to be amazed at the Media Doctor’s genius!  And mark my words:  our students will be ready.

Dr. Phil Hoffman is General Manager of The University of  Akron’s Z-TV.  He is also the single smartest guy on the face of the planet.  If you don’t count about 9.7 million folks in China.  And 2.9 million in India.  And 790,000 in Japan.  And….well, you get the idea.  But really, he’s pretty smart.  Unless he’s wrong about all this. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ok, now we're getting into the's the water?

From the most recent TV Newsday, it appears the article I posted on my UA blog ( back in January was amazingly I can SEE THE FUTURE. And I quote:

WOIO, WKYC Create Video News Pool
TVNEWSDAY, Feb 16 2009, 8:35 AM ET
In what's beginning to look an industry trend, two network affiliated stations in Cleveland — Raycom WOIO (CBS) and Gannett's WKYC (NBC) — are launching a news sharing arrangement to cost cut and free up crews for enterprise reporting.
Videographers from either station will cover basic events of mutual interest including news conferences, court hearings, groundbreaking ceremonies and other planned public events.

"This new collaboration will allow both stations to shift more resources towards enterprise stories that support our individual style of news gathering," said Brooke Spectorsky, president and GM of WKYC.

"We, like all businesses, are looking for ways to be more efficient without compromising the fine work being done by our reporters and anchors," said Bill Applegate, VP and GM of WOIO.

Other stations are looking at pooling arrangements, mostly notably NBC and Fox. They combined resources in Philadelphia last year and say they plan to do it in other markets where they both have stations: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Washington.

Initial Reaction?

The initial reaction online from various "unnamed sources" who are friendly to your blog-meister is one of frustration over serving multiple masters and concern over how the workload will be parsed out....

But rest assured, faithful readers....this is not the end.

Next prediction: WJW and WEWS will get ever more friendly...I agree with OMW blog-meister-general that the Fox 8 folks and the Scripps bunch will be looking for similar economies of scale.

Stay tuned.....

Diving Into The Pool

Saying TV news is competitive is akin to saying one needs air and water to live. It’s such an obvious statement that I can’t imagine why you’re still reading this.

And yet......

How much longer before a major media market begins to explore ways for stations to pool resources rather than compete?

Before you rush to correct me, and tell me the unions and guilds will never allow it to happen, that producers and news directors would rather die in a knife-fight with the competition than rely on them for footage, let me explain why I pose the question.

First, I am not alone in posing this question. Writer Lauren Rich Fine recently asked the same question, and offered some reasons why she believes that stations may move in this direction. In Cincinnati, stations have agreed to pool resources in covering Bengals games. In Denver, reports say the NBC affiliate and Telemundo are playing somewhat nice together,

I am not crazy. It’s not impossible, And in many cases where there is shared corporate parentage, the idea is already being implemented.

But what about in cases of hardened competitors? People who engage in battle every day to beat the other by seconds? Can they ever rely on each other for footage? Are they so trained to seek exclusives that this idea will never take root?

Well, anyone who’s ever actually BEEN out in the field knows the truth: we already do. Listen, news directors know this goes on, but nobody really wants to admit it: colleagues often share non-exclusive footage with each other as a matter of professional courtesy.

There were many occasions when I would go to folks from other stations because we missed something. And they gave up the video. And there were plenty of times where we provided video to someone who had missed a press conference, etc. Although we were competitors, we were also mostly friendly with each other, and so nobody wanted to see somebody else get a whooping from the ND because they (God forbid!) missed the press conference of the opening of another fast food chain or such other nonsense.

So my question is this: why not formalize the agreement? Not for exclusives, not for investigative reports, but for the daily dog-and-pony shows, press conferences, weather footage, and other routine items it would make sense.

In fact, I would argue that having full-res video online as a shared local resource would make local coverage cheaper, and would also result in fewer crews getting “jerked around” from story to story. And not being asked by an assignment editor to be in two places at one time for two different B.S. stories is something I think we all could live with.

Would this also mean a loss of jobs? Probably. But aren’t we already shedding jobs like a dog sheds it’s winter coat in May? Maybe if stations are able to maintain coverage with a pool approach, the jobs that still exist will continue to exist.

But hey...we know you gotta get the EXCLUSIVE video of the same thing everyone else has. That’s the rule, right?

Monday, February 16, 2009

If You Can't Say Anything Nice....

I’m going to start this by tossing out some letters, which I will refer back to later:
SPJ, NPPA, RTNDA. As you can see, I am teasing you right from the top!

Today’s assignment: explain the concept of “cross talk” or “happy talk” between news anchors.

What am I talking about? Well surely, if you’ve ever watched any local news on TV, you know. An anchor finishes reading the story, and then turns to their co-anchor, and before starting the next story says something tremendously useful like “wow, that just breaks your heart.”

Ah. So that’s how I am supposed to feel. I find this type of news very instructive, because I lack an actual heart. My heart was crushed and removed by a series of pre-teen girls back in middle school, leaving only a shell of a human behind. But I digress…

Now listen, I’m no idiot. I know that the research says viewers like this. They feel that the person giving them the news is their friend, talking with them through the magical box that glows at night. Warm. Fuzzy. Consultants say cross talk gives the station a distinctive personality.

One cannot help but notice that each station is going for a particular feel that sets them apart form the competition. For example, in our market I know one station is the “hip, edgy” station by the cross talk (example: “you are not going to believe what this idiot did!”). Another station is going for the “hometown” feel (example: “you’re heart really goes out to this family”). Yet another station is after the “staid” feel (example: “thanks for that update.”)

But some stations have really gotten very aggressive with their cross talk lately. I mean, they are really cross. Take for example, an anchor in the Cleveland market who recently ended a story about a robbery by saying “let’s hope that scumbag gets what he deserves.” Ok. First, do I really need to give the lecture about the legal system? That being charged doesn’t make one guilty?

Secondly, as was the case in this story, let’s just suppose there’s an eyewitness…a neighbor who tells the news crew they saw the guy doing the thing that is alleged. Again, do I need to dig up the research that shows the great fallibility of eyewitness testimony? Any first year law student can tell you that would be among your first “go to” arguments. “Mr. Witness, how can you be certain it was my client? Wasn’t it dark? Were you wearing your glasses?” Boom. Acquittal.

And finally, any corporate suit will tell you that being sued by an innocent person for calling them a “scumbag” on the air is just a little less fun than a root canal without anesthetic.

So why? Why, oh why does this happen? Because in our rush to establish a feel, we often overlook the actual content of the cross talk, or in some cases, we actually intend the cross talk to rile up our viewers. It’s like we’re saying “We’re outraged just like you are!!!”

And so back to those letters we started out with: SPJ, RTNDA, NPPA. Each of these organizations has published a Code of Ethics for journalists. All three organizations concur: journalists should refrain from injecting opinion into news content. So, that leaves me with only a couple of possible assumptions. First, it may mean many TV news organizations are disregarding these ideals entirely. Or secondly, perhaps it means that many organizations consider anchors to be anything other than journalists. I refuse to accept either idea. In fact, I would argue that you can tell that many anchors actually dislike this part of their job intensely.

In fact I will name names: Stacey Bell of Fox 8, WJW. I am consistently impressed by Ms. Bell’s restraint, and her deft way of steering out of dangerous editorializing with a few well-chosen words. She often slams on the brakes, even when it seems like her co-anchors might want to pull an editorial comment out of her. Joining Ms. Bell on my A-Team is WKYC 7:00 p.m. anchor Eric Mansfield. Forget the fact that I used to scream, “get away from my desk, Derek!” when he was an intern at WAKC-TV. The truth is, Mr. Mansfield is one of the most professional news anchors I have seen. I would like to say he got it from me, but the truth is he was already that way before I met him. WKYC’s “Report the Facts, Respect the Truth” catchphrase is in good hands with Eric. But for every anchor that I could list here, there are three that belong in the doghouse.

Since I am such a class act, I won’t name names here. But you know who you are, and you should be ashamed. It is only my aforementioned gentility that keeps me from calling you on this.

Now, probably it’s because I’m old and crabby, but I will go this argument a bit further out on the limb. I actually yell at my TV when an anchor tells me “this is a sad story.”

I leap off my couch and shout with tremendous ferocity: “No, I am happy! I will not knuckle under to your emotional tyranny. You cannot tell me how to feel, Big Brother!”

After all, if the shooter and the reporter have done their job well, I am quite likely to feel sad at the end of that story. So what is that comment from the anchor about? Empathy? Amplification? Explanation for the heartless (see my statement above)?

I’m sorry, but I cannot help but see this as opinion. Ok for weather stories, but not so much for murders, fires, or political stories.

I understand that the days of Edward R. Murrow’s straight-faced dispassion are long gone. But can we at least all agree that injecting opinion is unethical? I am not making this up, and such esteemed organizations as the RTNDA are there to back me up.

So, I work each day to fight back just a little. I force my students to read the codes of ethics. They are attached to my course syllabus. I make sure they try to avoid editorializing in cross-talk. But I also tell them that someday, if they work really hard and get lucky, they are going to be asked to make a choice between what’s ethical, and what’s popular.

I can only hope that they wind up on my A-Team with Ms. Bell and Mr. Mansfield. The doghouse is already way too crowded.

Dr. Phil Hoffman is a former reporter, producer, and director who now teaches media at The University of Akron. And he is always right, so too bad for you.