Thursday, September 3, 2009

Do Consultants Choose the News?

The Remote Decides

Do consultants using research choose the news? In response to my post “Where in the World is the News?” I asked why local TV producers for late evening newscasts don’t choose a compelling international story over some weak , “hyper-local”, time-filling nobody-cares story? Of course, as I expected, the voices of all-knowing “Anonymous” answered. (These are from anonymous people who have commented to

The first Anonymous declared: “To answer your question of why? Research. Research shows when people turn to local news, they want local stories.” I know about research. The second “Anonymous” dismissed my assertion as “baseless”. Or, perhaps “Anonymous #2 is so driven by research that nothing else matters.

To both, I say if you had read the post closely, you would know that my premise flies in the face of current trends. As you’ll see later, I really don’t care what others say. So, let’s talk about research leading to these prevailing and, to my mind, wrong-headed trends in local news. Do I understand “hyper-local”? Hell, yes. What you’re reading is “hyper-local”, except according to Google Analytics, this post may be read worldwide! My primary audience, however, is Central Texas, but what I write may have application elsewhere. Anyhow, back to research.

The research starts with station management and news management meeting with well-paid consultants to decide what questions will be posed to a sample audience. Are they asking the right questions? Are they asking questions that are often asked in other cookie-cutter markets that produce predictable results? The Austin market is an anomaly—all experienced media consultants know that. Austin is more educated, more read, more Internet savvy, more wired, and younger than most. The questions must be well-crafted.

Now, let’s talk about the research in the field. They research is usually conducted by telephone calling from another city. Telephone random research is becoming more and more difficult because so many people don’t have a land line. They are cell phone-only users. Austin is #39 in a ranking of cell phone-only markets. Who has land lines? Who has only cell phones? Media research operations are beginning to use multi-platform media to gather data. Does that skew the findings? Perhaps. Probably.

When the pollster calls, the first chore is to determine whether the person answering the phone is a news consumer—do they watch, for instance, the 10 O’clock news. If they don’t, “Thank you and goodnight.” There is a problem here. In these days of decreasing HUTS (Households Using Television), we need to ask a few more questions trying to find out if they ever watched the late news. If they did watch the late news, why are they not watching the late news now? I’d love to see the verbatim answers to those questions. The actual notes are often more useful than the choices the respondent makes to “yes” and “no” questions.

Having identified news viewers, the pollster gets to the questions decided by management and the consultant. The glib answer that “When people turn to local news, they want local stories” isn’t enough. There is much more to research than that. It may be a consultant’s interpretation that concludes that “hyper-local” is the way to increase audience. It is interesting to me that “hyper-local” seems to be the mantra repeated in many markets. One size does not fit all.

Finally, it is part of the job of a journalist to tell the people/users/consumers/viewers/readers what they need, beyond what they want. The audience may not even know that they need information.

There used to be a sign above my desk for well more than a decade. “This is not Burger King. You can’t have it your way.” In jest the message then was meant for reporters. It can be applied to the audience as well. The audience should not choose the news either. That might be good for Google News, but not local TV or any journalist for that matter. For a news manager research results are useful in order to know what kind of stories the audience wants more of, but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor. The ultimate polling or research is the polling and research that is done every day—The Nielsen over-night ratings.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure that I’ll say it again: Content is king—local and otherwise. Give the audience compelling content—local, state, national, or international—people will watch in any market. If you show me a rewritten two-day-old local story with a banner still saying “Developing News” (as was the case during my recent content analysis), I’m grabbing the remote. I have agency. I may surf to another station, or I may turn the TV off. Gone.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


D.Lowry said...

research should always fall behind the real test..."Who Cares?"

Anonymous said...

Research is a tool, just like ratings.... You extract from it what your intellect and education tell you to. To look at a newscast, you have to pick it apart. For now, throw out sports and weather and focus on the news product. Breaking news will always rank high... but those in-depth uncover and discover stories need to be timely to the people of your audience (this is where you need to know your market and sadly also to what draws your market, i.e. murder, mayhem, tech, health stories, etc.) If you try to appeal to research and ratings without UNDERSTANDING what is important and then laying out the story in a way that helps the viewer understand it, then you've lost them. They don't see why it's important to them... If you do, then you've used those tools to your advantage.

Example... a story about mismanagement in a school district would appear dry and dull to the viewer... but... if you are in a market with a large percentage of middle income, 2 kids per household environment, then obviously a story about mismanagement in the local school district would be more appealing but KNOWING that from research and ratings, you would recognize the appeal...but if that audience has an average education level of High School Junior, then breaking it down to that mentality would make it a story that would strike a chord with the viewer. That "chord" or connection is how you draw a viewer. You win them in the short term. Doing it on a regular basis is the long term benefit... and eventually you have a loyal viewer.

Most people think it's ratings. It's many factors and even the time of the year, payday, holidays, etc. can play into the equation... learn how to plug in variables for the equation and you get a far more accurate and predictable answer. It's a formula more than a problem.

Summation... Consultants are tools... ;)

Anonymous said...


Now you're injecting another issue into the discussion: whether research on what viewers want in a news broadcast plays too big a role in shaping what local television news stations cover.

It's true that stations generally give too much weight to research on viewer preferences. I believe research should be used but it should never be the driving force in molding the ingredients for a news broadcast.

From looking at research on viewer preference, I can tell you viewers always say they want more local news on education, consumer issues, local government and fewer stories on crime. They also say they want more news about key issues around the world. It's hard to pay a lot of attention to the research, since viewers always say they want more of the kind of news that makes them look more intelligent to the researcher who is asking them the questions. If anything, the research helps tell us if there's any new trends in viewer preferences.

In general, it's important for a television station to provide viewers with stories that have broad appeal and that impact viewers' lives, regardless of whether they are local, state or international. The stories must have great video, sound and emotional soundbites, and not feature talking head interviews with bureaucrats who spit out facts that are better explained by a reporter.

A news department wanting to do the right thing should do a lot of digging for news that affects the community and its viewers and not rely primarily on news releases and crime news. With such an approach, a news department will generate fresh, compelling and sometimes shocking stories that will provide viewers with what they need.

The 10 p.m. broadcast, in particular, should continue primarily to be local in content, but the broadcast should also provide a segment for the key world news of the day. Of course, there is always the exception -- the days when a huge world story must dominate the broadcast. 9-1-1 was a good example of that.

A downside in all this, as a final thought.

Having a quality news broadcast with meaningful content that affects people's daily lives can be difficult to achieve since a station general manager also wants a say. A general manager will sometimes insist on changes that make no sense at all, but since he controls the purse strings, a news director has to pay attention to what he's being told. Considering that reality, not only must a news director have solid news skills, he must also have the ingenuity to convince the station's top brass to give him free reign to do what is necessary to provide a quality product free of trash.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like either kxan OR keye gm's here. Sales types that become GM's don't usually have much knowledge of news but find fascination in it (as we all do) but end up making intrusive decisions that although can benenfit the bottom line in a positive way, can negatively impact the product. Thankfully, GM's don't last long.

Tim the Enchanter said...

You're right on. I'm a local TV news producer in a large Texas market with a decade experience, and I can tell you while "research" does dictate a large degree of what goes into a local newscast, most "research" is totally bogus, rewritten or disregarded by overzealous news directors and punctuated by lazy producers. What's happening with the economy and health care is far more important to my viewers than, say, that homicide downtown or the big fire or the kid on his bike who was run over and killed. But unless there's some "jazzy," compelling element (like angry people shouting), big "newspaper stories" (as many news directors call them) get pushed to the side for crime, catastrophe and the latest weight loss craze.

Any producer who tells you otherwise or touts the value of "research" is missing the point. Local TV news ratings have dropped EVERY SINGLE MONTH for the last few years and will continue to do so until our industry is completely dead.