Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy is a perfect, if exaggerated, icon for the early days of local television. The local news formula that exists today was invented by Burgundy's real-life counterparts, and they were larger than life. Network shows pulled gigantic prime time audiences into TV stations. Local newscasts rode those coattails and stations printed money, so Burgundy earned his swagger.
Fast-forward to today. After decades of station consolidation, network declines and technological innovation, the station business is very different. Many people now watch network shows online, on DVRs or on demand. They completely bypass local stations and get programming directly from Netflix, Hulu or the networks.
It's the Blockbuster scenario playing out once more: The people who make the programming are distributing more directly to the people who watch it, and cutting out a middleman.
And with diminishing audiences for live, prime time shows, local news ratings have plunged.
What's a station to do?
There are a couple of ways to respond to disruptive innovation. One is to understand it, find out how people use it and harness it to grow your business or build a new one. The other is to dig in your heels, sue the innovators and cut costs to protect the bottom line for as long as you can.
Guess which way most stations are responding?
Television stations should be labs for creativity and innovation. They have access to talent, they can try things out on a small scale without a lot of risk or expense. When technology enables a new way to serve viewers or create a new product, it's far easier for a local station to experiment than for a behemoth network to do the same.
But most stations have such a narrow, short-term focus they're no longer capable of exploring opportunity -- or even recognizing it. They have added hours upon hours of low-cost news rather than develop new programs or find new ways to serve local audiences. Salary cuts and newsroom consolidation have turned most local news into a bland commodity lacking personality and absent of compelling characters that attract viewers.
In fact, stations today are afraid of characters. If a local personality becomes too popular, they'll command a higher salary. Therefore station executives are fond of saying that on-air talent doesn't matter, that even newscasts with legacy anchors are declining. Entirely missing the point that the newscasts themselves no longer work.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are about 40 hours of local news each weekday. If that's not the definition of an over-supplied commodity, I don't know what is. Yet stations keep adding more, despite evidence from the Pew Research Center showing "the strategy of gaining viewers by adding more and more time for news appears to have stopped paying off."
Innovation at stations is defined in business terms, not creative ones. Rather than produce compelling programming or come up with better ways to exploit their localism, stations have finally found a way to get paid by local cable carriers through retransmission consent agreements. With this steady revenue stream, there's little pressure to improve programming or build new local media businesses.
The revenue comes in and the bonuses are paid out, even as ratings wither and audiences discover they can do just fine without local TV news.
This strategy only works in the short term. Without providing value of their own, stations will not continue to earn the cable carriage money they have just begun to enjoy.
Where can viewers see thoughtful commentary on local issues or learn about local restaurants and events? What are stations doing to attract the next generation of documentary storytellers living in their backyards?
It may be difficult for TV stations to avoid going the way of Blockbuster. But it sure would be nice to see them try.