Local TV Station Hits Home Run With Political Interview Show

"I don't know if it's Donald Trump. I don't know what it is, but I'm getting the sense that politics is beginning to have a bit of a renaissance on TV," says Rittiman. "Maybe because the presidential race is turning into a quasi-TV reality show. I don't know."
10/19/2015 11:58 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2016

Denver's NBC affiliate is showing the world (or, let's hope, at least other Denver television stations) how to air a longish-form political interview TV program--and make it interesting and important in the new media landscape.

Last week's interview with Hillary Clinton, which aired on 9News Sunday on the program, called Balance of Power, is an example of how it's done.

The show's primary host, Brandon Rittiman, landed the interview, he says, in part because having a regular public affairs program "makes us a better sell to get these interviews."

Rittiman: "They decided that they wanted to do some local affiliates after the debate, and out of the blue sky, after talking to their people back and forth for a long time, they called... We have this hole, this home, for content. It makes us a better sell to get these interviews... It takes a lot of time and effort to put together a regular show on politics and public affairs. And there stations that don't want to make that resource commitment, because it's difficult. But it does have its rewards. We got news content yesterday that we might not have gotten otherwise."

9News rushed the entire interview online, to get maximum love from the 24-hour news cycle, with Rittiman, who's 9News' political reporter, pushing it out on social media. And the station aired some of Rittiman's questions, which mostly had Colorado connections, on various newscasts. On Sunday morning, the interview will air in its regular 15-minute Balance-of-Power slot on 9News prior to "Meet the Press."

Rittiman: If you turn on your TV to 9News and you watch a newscast, you'll get great information, but that's not the same as having it out in the longer form conversation. It's not the same as giving a Colorado voice to the presidential election. The two are symbiotic. We get good content for newscasts out of Balance of Power, and Balance of Power gives people a great place to go beyond the soundbite type story.

And it's clear that long-form TV interview shows, like Balance of Power, are more than just junk food for the political chatter class. They make a difference in the policy debate and in elections, as was demonstrated last year and continues to be evident. In the shrinking media universe, with tightly controlled campaigns, they can actually affect elections and policy.

And simply having a regular political interview show helps a TV station from forgetting about politics in the midst of exciting storms and animal sightings.

Unfortunately, Balance of Power is the only local political TV interview show that remains standing in Denver. Fox 31's excellent "#CoPolitics at the Source" died with the departure of Eli Stokols. Aaron Harbor's locally-themed shows usually appear only around election time. And Channel 6's "Colorado State of Mind" most often focuses on policy not policymakers and candidates. Channel 12's Colorado Inside Out talks about, not with, public officials and newsmakers.

Rittiman says 9News is committed to airing Balance of Power at least through next year's election, and points to its regular Sunday time slot as proof of this. Until earlier this year, it was a here-and-there kind of feature. The show is promoted on air on 9News regularly, which is key, and it's featured on the station's website.

You might laugh at calling Balance of Power's 10-15 minute interviews "long form," but, hey, that's what it is compared to what's out there today. As Rittiman says, you can go "well beyond soundbites" in 15 minutes.

And, mostly, it's hard to argue that anything longer than 15 minutes has much interest to people beyond the chatter class.

"How many people will watch a half-hour discussion about a local or state-level political issue? If people aren't watching it, did we really help the community that much?" asks Rittiman. "Did it really help voters that much? I would argue that it doesn't, if you're not reaching a substantial audience."

You can make a good case that any interview on the record is important, even with no audience, but Nielsen ratings from February, which was the last month of Stokols' Fox 31 interview program, show Balance of Power being watched on over 4 percent of Denver TVs, which is impressive. It eclipsed Stokols' show. Harbor's program showed no audience at all, which makes me feel like an alien because I watched it sometimes.

"I don't know if it's Donald Trump. I don't know what it is, but I'm getting the sense that politics is beginning to have a bit of a renaissance on TV," says Rittiman. "Maybe because the presidential race is turning into a quasi-TV reality show. I don't know."

"If you put in the work to understand the issues, and the processes involved, and to convert it all into English that people can digest and use to grasp the arguments, you connect with people," says Rittiman. "And we've proved it here at 9News. People want this stuff.

"I don't think there's anyone sitting at home who thinks, 'Oh, you know, I don't care about the way the world is run.' As an industry, we think, 'This is complicated. We have to hand hold people to help them understand this.' Hand holding pays off. That's all I would say to that. And people are grateful for it."