11/07/2008 05:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Numbers Don't Add Up For TV News

If you'll glance at my bio, you'll see that I've been bouncing around the broadcast industry for more than 30 years. Does that make me an "expert"? Not by a long shot. But, it does give me an insider's perspective on an industry that is going through a revolution. When I was growing up, the nightly local newscast was must-watch TV in our house, as it was in many others. There wasn't much local news on the TV in those days, so local radio provided our morning update on what was happening in our area. That, however, is another post for another day. Let's stick with television, for now.

Election night has long been a big night for television, locally and at the network level. Massive amounts of money and resources are poured into a wall-to-wall effort. Preliminary ratings for the major networks show viewership was down, compared to 2004. ABC was down 2 percent, NBC down 24 percent and CBS down 25 percent. Cable numbers, however, were up. How dramatically? CNN beat ALL of the broadcast networks (except for ABC) for much of the evening. Assuming local viewership followed the national broadcast trend, you can bet that plans for 2012 might not be as energetic as for this year.

During the 1970's and 1980's, television stations were often money-machines, generating enough viewership for local news and network programming to charge premium advertising rates. A lot of that income was poured into the news department, expanding staff size and upgrading equipment. Then, in what seemed like an overnight change, cable and satellite systems exploded, adding hundreds of options for television watchers. The pool of viewers became divided among all those channels, rather than just the network affiliates. For a time, viewers still returned for the local news, and stations thought things might be okay. Then, things slipped into a vicious circle.

Viewership began to slip, even in the local news, as viewers found other things to watch, other things to do. There's an old adage in broadcasting, "once the eyeballs are gone, it's tough to get them back". As revenues were pinched, staffing was trimmed, equipment was forced to stay in service longer, and the local news product began to suffer.

I don't want to be perceived as a grouchy old man, the one who says "life was sure better in the old days". Let me tell you a short story that encapsulates then versus now. When I came to Little Rock in 1986, the station I worked for sponsored a hugely-popular contest to honor the top volunteers in the state. One of my first assignments was to do all of the profiles of the winners. The news director essentially assigned one of the best photographers to work with me and told us to take a month, travel the state, and take as much air-time as we wanted for each profile. We created a series of reports, each lasting three or four minutes; reports that I'm still proud of today.

That station still honors the volunteers, but the reports are divided among the news staff and are limited in the amount of airtime they receive. The awards are handed out at an evening banquet, once carried live (pre-empting network programming). Now, the program is produced for airing on a delayed basis. It's really all a matter of staffing, spending money, and conforming to consultant-driven newscasts that have limits on story length to keep the "pacing" up.

You see, it's all about keeping those eyeballs glued to the TV. The industry has realized that it doesn't take much to distract a viewer and they play all kinds of games to keep those viewers in place, at least long enough to register in the ratings. If you haven't watched a local newscast in a while, make a point to do so for a few days. Even those "prime" evening newscasts are filled with soft news segments that are simply in-studio interview segments; the kind of segments that were once relegated to early-morning news programs. Think back to the day when stations had investigative reporters who were regularly given big chunks of airtime to report on stories that may have taken weeks to investigate. It doesn't happen at very many stations today. And that's sad. The potential is still there. I'm just not sure any broadcaster can, in today's economy, come up with enough cash to venture out of that limb and give it a try. It sure would be fun to see somebody try. Cronkite, Murrow, and the others would be proud.