Thursday, September 10, 2009

What Austin TV Station Has the Most News?

Stories Count

Joe Roddy, news director at KTBC TV in the late 1960s and early 1970s, always closed his newscast with the declaration, “That’s ALL the day’s news …” It was a signature sign-off for Mr. Roddy, but we all knew that it was not “all the day’s news.” It was the news KTBC (Then CBS AND ABC) chose to cover, and it was “all the day’s news” that would fit inside the news hole. A news hole then and now may be anywhere from eight- to 13 minutes, depending on several factors.

A snapshot content analysis of two days of newscasts in 2009 might have provided a clue to which Austin TV station is providing the available audience with the most news. This writer attempted to break down the 6 and 10 O’clock newscasts for Friday, August 28th and Monday, August 31st. While the analysis did provide some useful information, it’s really impossible to say which station has the most news.

There are at least a couple of ways of looking at it. One is “story count”. Some stations may simply have a few more stories on the air that another station. That newscast philosophy is fast-paced with a drumbeat in the background. Indeed, the banners for the stories may “fly” in with music and narration. Generally speaking, consultants favor this kind of show.

The other approach is more deliberate with a slower pace and a promise of in-depth coverage.

Austin stations seem to want to marry the two styles. Why? I think it is because the Austin audience demands news now, but the viewers here are educated and brainy. This audience doesn’t want to see some superficial fluff or flash and trash. These viewers want to see the “back story” too. Sometimes, however, there is no back story, or perhaps the wrong reporter was assigned to it.

This week I saw a live shot with a “package” (Video, interviews, and a reporter narration) that at once made me want to scream at the TV, run from the room, grab the remote, or watch in horror. The station sent the reporter back into a neighborhood where a serial rapist had been attacking women. A suspect was now under arrest. The reporter was looking for reactions. What did the station news managers expect the residents to say? “Gee, I’m sorry he was arrested?” Or, if they knew him, “He was a quiet man who kept to himself. The resulting story was vacuous at best, but it consumed 1-minute, 30-seconds and helped the producer fill up the show, but it wasted my time—Time that could have contained some real news perhaps. Those story choices are usually made early in the day. It is responsibility of the reporter, working with the assignments desk and show producers, to decide whether to continue with the story if the content doesn’t support the effort. Those decisions, those choices should be subject to change.

The producer is one of the variables making one newscast different from another. Give four different producers access to the same material on an ordinary day, they will likely come up with four very different newscasts. That’s good. It gives the viewers a choice. One producer may cram a show with a ton of stories, some only two-sentences long. Some stories will have video, some will not. Another producer may go for style points and fewer stories.

Another variable is the day of the week. I unfortunately picked a Friday for one of the days of the content analysis when much of the shows are given to sports. Also, 10 O’clock newscasts generally have more stories, if for no other reason, the shows may be a little longer. Finally, another variable is the commercial load. When business is good, the breaks are all money-making commercials which cannot be cut. When business isn’t so good, the breaks may include promotional spots. There have been a lot of promotional spots in the breaks lately. If there is so-called, honest-to-goodness “breaking news”, a producer may kill some of those promos to gain time for news.

Generally, the content analysis indicated that most Austin 30-minute newscasts consist of seven to eleven stories. There was one newscast with 17 stories. The station that consistently seemed to have the most stories was KEYE TV (CBS) with often eleven and 12 stories, not counting teases for weather or sports. KVUE TV (ABC) and KXAN (NBC) seemed to have eight or nine stories. All were pretty much the same. All stations made efforts at “enterprise” stories, stories that are generated by the newsroom staff, not from external sources.

Not counting “First Weather” or weather teases, the actual weathercast is generally around three minutes. Sports seems to get about two minutes on all the stations, except on Friday nights. Sports seems longer on KEYE because the sportscast contains a break.

So, if the content analysis indicates that story count and content are pretty much a wash, why is KVUE #1, why is KXAN #2 and so forth? It probably starts with story selection, as mentioned above, and it ends with execution. KVUE has fewer on-the-air errors and a strong editorial staff. KEYE has the anchor team with the most tenure in Judy Maggio, Ron Oliveira, and Troy Kimmel, but they have fewer reporters. Reporters equal content. KXAN’s anchors, Leslie Rhode, Robert Hadlock, Jim Spencer, and Roger Wallace have the second most tenure, and they too have a strong staff. KXAN’s Jim Swift has the most tenure in town. News 8 is consistent.

There are two answers. One is that there is some loyalty for each station. The other is the high number of people in Austin with “no preference”, many of whom haven’t been here for more than five years and don’t care which anchors have the most tenure. That’s why when KEYE brought back meteorologist Troy Kimmel this summer, they created a promotional spot showing all of Kimmel’s experience.

Of course, it’s pointless to attempt a comparison of 2009 TV news with the news Joe Roddy read. The industry and the ways we tell stories is far different now. Stations are quick to point out that there is always much more information on an important story on their web site. Maybe that is where we find “all the day’s news.”

© Jim McNabb, 2009

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