Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine?


It Isn’t Fair



Editor's note: What follows started out as a reply to a comment to newsmcnabb. Since I’ve already written more than 300 words, it seemed obvious that it was more than a comment. Reflecting on my previous post, “There is Still Hope”, the writer raised the possibility of reinstating the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” repealed by President Ronald Reagan. It basically required broadcasters to provide equal time to opposing views.

Another reader posted an opposing view of the Fairness Doctrine. “I don't care for the idea of a reinstatement of the "Fairness Doctrine", per se... but I am worried that broadcasting has lowered itself to appealing to its viewers/listeners guttural feelings.”


OK. Here’s my take: I am not interested in the Fairness Doctrine at all. I am opposed to government telling the independent media what it can and cannot do. I'm not sure how it ever got on the books in the first place as, to me, it was unconstitutional on its face.


Newspapers are not subject to a "fairness doctrine"--never have been.


In the market place of ideas, the truth should rise to the top. Nowadays, however, one must question what another calls truth. As I said in the most recent post, sometimes I wish I could grab some of these politicians and pundits by the face and force them to look at the truth, and it seeing the truth, require them write and/or tell the truth.


Politics has returned to the strategy of "the big lie" often aided and abetted by the media, unfortunately. Our elected members of Congress will stand in front of the colleagues and cameras and proclaim outlandish lies. Yes, lies, or perhaps half truths which can be even more hurtful sometimes. If someone challenges the liar, the changer is open to a personal attack. This kind of posturing has been going on since Congress was created. What is different now is that we have a multiplicity of means of acquiring information, and the viewing, listening, reading, consuming public can pick and choose their “truth”. Polarization widens.


The American people, beset by these big lies, misinformation, and disinformation, often don't know who to believe. A Rasmussen poll released December 26, 2009 said that only 30-percent believed that the economic stimulus helped while 38-percent did not believe it.


I'm no economist. As a journalist, however, I see that housing sales are up, the economy is growing at around two-percent, and people are making guardedly optimistic statements about a turnaround in the economy.


"The independent panel that oversees the government’s financial bailout program [TARP] concluded in a year-end review that, despite flaws and lingering problems, the program “can be credited with stopping an economic panic,” The New York Times reported December 9, 2009. If you don’t believe the Times because that newspaper is perceived as too “liberal” or whatever, believe the economists who oversaw program. The assessment was based an audit by the panel, chaired by Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who by all accounts has been even-handed and effective in the job.


It worked, they said. It's the truth, they said. Can you handle it?


Well, that “truth” is then filtered through talk show hosts, bloggers, columnists, comics, and pundits. Then, we, the citizens must cipher the “real truth”. In this age it is the responsibility of the citizenry to read, watch, and listen to all of them to arrive at the truth. I’ve always said that more information is better than less. So, watch more than one newscast. Read more than one newspaper. Listen to more than one columnist. Read more than one blogger. We have the technology.


And, in this technological age, the Fairness Doctrine is an anachronism. It would not work, if it ever did.


© Jim McNabb, 2009


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

There Is Still Hope







Toward 2010



Another talented, top-notch friend is leaving the broadcast news business at the end of the year for a more secure, and possibly a more fulfilling, position in academia. I suppose that means that there may be a job opening at a Texas TV station for somebody else, and that may also be good news. That in a nutshell sort of characterizes 2009 in communications.



Media is in flux. That’s the answer I gave in a discussion during Mass Communications Week at Texas State this fall. Media—all media—are in a state of flux. That’s good and bad news at the same time. For example: NBC’s decision to let Jay Leno have a one-hour show, five days a week right before local news is bad news for local NBC affiliates. It’s good news for other stations in the market, such as KEYE TV (CBS) because, the move forced people to sample other news at 10 O’clock. It also gave viewers an hour to watch programs that had recorded. As I said recently, however, I think that Jay is also in flux. Affiliates won’t put up with this for long.



That leads to another, larger issue. If the NBC Universal/Comcast goes through, it will be the next big step in the migration of network programming away from local TV stations. Lots of programming is already available on NBC.com and Hulu.com. It could also be the beginning of a rebirth of quality programs.



Of course, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, isn’t operating in the Austin area. Instead, we get the second largest cable company, Time Warner. It will be interesting to see if TW will work out its retransmission deal with Fox or if Fox will disappear from Time Warner January 1, 2010. Time Warner spun-away AOL this year, making their bottom line even better. Will that translate into TW being a better cable company? I doubt it.



Meantime, satellite providers Dish and Direct TV reap the benefits while AT&T’s U-Verse and Grande Cable keep building out their coverage neighborhood by neighborhood. Further, Apple wants to start up subscription TV programming over the Internet. Apple’s idea won’t replace live broadcasts like football games yet, however.



Further, the so-called “digital revolution” may actually benefit viewers more and more in the year to come if networks and cable companies continue feuding. Some stations, such as KXAN TV (NBC) still haven’t made full use of their side channel. Further, LIN TV’s KBVO TV, formerly KXAM TV in the Hill Country still cannot be seen by most in the Austin area. Until KBVO is available in Austin, the move to make it a separate station, no longer rebroadcasting KXAN, will continue to confound me.



Where radio is concerned, KGSR FM (Emmis) switched frequencies to 93.3 from 107.1. Now, the station is attempting to enhance its coverage area in Austin and improve its numbers while 107.1 has become Spanish language broadcasting.



Recognition of the growing Spanish speaking audience and culture in Austin is another change that will only expand in 2010. Many of the TV digital side channels are now devoted to Spanish programming. KEYE .2 and is also doing local news in Spanish with Fred Cantu as its anchor. Cantu started in Austin doing radio news in Spanish before moving to TV decades ago.



Many, however, for personal and professional reasons, however are leaving “the business” behind. Some are going into retirement. Some are choosing newly created opportunities in cyberspace. Some are being laid-off or, better, bought out. With the loss of these pros we, the audience, lose their perspective along with their talents.



At the same time print publications are still shutting down or cutting back on when they go to press. So far Austin seems to be escaping these sad developments, but I hate to see “Editor and Publisher” magazine go away.



In the national broadcast media this year, we’ve seen increased splintering and polarizing, and it is reflected in the Congress. Sometimes, I just want to grab some of these politicians and pundits by the face and ask them to recognize truth when they see it. The nation has been beaten down by cynicism and negativism—particularly the politics of “No”. Viewers, readers, and users of the media seem to be consuming only those thoughts, positions, and beliefs that reinforce their pre-existing notions.



Mainstream media is in flux too. ABC’s World News Tonight debuted its new main anchor with flashy and fresh opening graphics Monday, December 21st after the retirement of Charles Gibson. Diane Sawyer turned 64 December 22nd. So, one might wonder how long she will warm the chair. For the most part, meantime, the networks continue pursuit of truth, but it’s hard when there are so many voices screaming hyperbole in the marketplace of ideas. I just want to repeat, “Come, let us reason together.” As an idealist in the mid-1960s I majored in Communications believing that it would lead to peace. Call me na├»ve, but I still believe.



I have a sticker that says “Hope” on the back of my truck. It’s not political. It’s an ideal. We must at the interpersonal level communicate hope and turn away from those who sneer. Hope is at the foundation of any economic stimulus. Hope will help heal the hurts. Hope with love and faith can end wars.



Best hopes and wishes for us all in 2010.



© Jim McNabb, 2009




Monday, December 21, 2009

Time Warner vs. Fox




Tough Love






Time Warner wants us to believe them yet again.

This is the same Time Warner that is just about the only programming provider in the Austin area that does not have a deal with the NFL Network. Not that I have any deep and abiding love for the NFL Network, but I did want to see a telecast of the Dallas Cowboys against the New Orleans Saints this past weekend. I could have sought out a friend with Dish, Direct TV, or Grande. I could have gone to a nearby sports bar and watched with a room full of loud people whom I do not know. Instead, I was relegated to NFL.com’s “live” coverage punctuated with its insipid “insights” into the game that was often going on in the background. Once, I could see the replay the sideline reporter was describing in a screen. It was something, but I’d rather have had the game.

This is the same Time Warner that has moved the free over-the-air digital stations, such as public television’s KLRU TV’s two side channels to the digital tier, out of the reach of customers who cannot or wish not to pay for it. There are blank spaces in the basic spectrum where worthy channels used to live. Now, they are gone or out of reach. I’ve wondered why we have blank channels.

This is the same Time Warner that went to war with LIN TV, owner of KXAN TV (NBC) and a couple of dozen other stations around the country over retransmission rights and payments last year. This Time Warner couldn’t make a deal with LIN, so they took KXAN out of the line-up.

Now, this same Time Warner is playing hardball with Fox and KTBC TV (Fox owned and operated) locally. This time the stakes are higher because conditions have changed, and I wouldn’t want to negotiate with Rupert Murdoch and his minions. The contract runs out January 1st.

TW’s tact is much different this time. They emailed all subscribers asking whether subscribers wanted TW to “get tough” with the networks—a pre-emptive strike. They asked for viewers votes. Apparently, viewers said, “Get tough.” Now, TW can say that they have the viewers on their side. It could be interpreted as the old saw, “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.”

So, acting on that TW is taking out full-page ads in the Austin American-Statesman (not cheap) saying, “You told use to get tough. We listened.” Time Warner claims TV networks are demanding price increases as high as 300%...” or “…they’ll pull the plug on their programs.” Time Warner wants you to believe that it, the second largest cable provider in the country, is the victim.

Fox, meantime, responded with its own full page ad (not cheap) of its own shouting, “Time Warner cable isn’t playing fair, and you could lose Fox.” Fox warns of future rate increases. Folks, if you were ready for the “digital revolution”, you will not lose Fox. You can pick it up off the air in full high definition, if you are so equipped.

Both TW and Fox have set up web sites to voice your opinion.

You do have a choice, of course. You can ignore the hullaballoo, have your Fox programming too. You may be able to change programming providers to keep the national programming. You can watch Fox over the air. It’s free.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

There Is Nothing New Under the Sun



Ecclesiastes and the News




For more than a year there has been more than enough change and chatter in Austin media to tickle my imagination. Maybe it’s the holidays, but somehow all of this seems rather hollow, empty, and meaningless right now.




Oh, I could write about change. The end of the year is often the typical time for a television news staff turnover. Yes, there are new reporters in the market. (One of the anchors mangled a newbie’s name on the air. It was the second muff he made in story intro. He might want to read over the scripts first.) One new staffer at KXAN TV (NBC) is Jacqueline Ingles, hired as a multi-platform reporter to cover the Hill Country. She has a nice resume.



None of these seem to matter much to me. To be sure, they matter to the individuals and media involved, but none of them inspire me. I’ve written many times that Austin is a “destination” market because Austin is the center of the universe, all Longhorns long to come home, and it’s still a cool city even though its growth continually amazes me.



These changes aren’t limited to the 48th market. There are continually new faces and assignments at the networks as retirement lures familiar faces away from the anchor desk.




I’m drawn to one of the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes, applying a few of the opening verses to media criticism as well as life:


1:8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear with hearing.


1:9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.


1:10 There is a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.


-- The words of the Teacher

I often use these words written around 400 BCE in lectures about “new media”, a term now falling out of favor because, I guess, new media isn’t new anymore. For music media, 78-RPM records, gave way to 45’s. Those were followed by eight-tracks and then cassettes. CD’s are disappearing, but vinyl still lives. Remember to back up your music on your hard drive; you could lose your MP3s.



The point is that what was once “new media” has been adapted or rejected (See eight tracks) but it is also true when applied to cycles in news.




In the 1950s and 1960s TV reporters went out armed with a Bell & Howell 16 mm camera equipped with a three-lens turret. Now, KXAN TV (NBC) reporters continue training on the current standard cameras. The station denies rumors that they are going to one-man/woman-bands after the first of the year.




“KXAN is cross-training its staff so reporters may also be photographers, photographers may also be reporters, etc. but we will not eliminate all two-person crews next year,” a station spokesperson says. “The result will be a more efficient operation with staff that has a variety of skills to leverage.” The key word in that paragraph may be “all”.




One-man crews have been the norm at News 8 for years, and years before that, just like it says in Ecclesiastes, “It has already been, in ages before us.” There is nothing new under the sun. Will there be fewer professional news photographers? No, none known of now. Maybe later? Will photographic quality suffer? Possibly. The reporters who shot their own film in earlier ages thought they were pretty good. I did.




Some see Ecclesiastes filled with futility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ecclesiastes is about the big picture. Call it High Def. We have more important things before us during this season of the year and a clean slate for 2010.




© Jim McNabb, 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Jay Leno Show and Local Ratings


The Leno Effect




The Austin television market is monitored by constantly by Neilson. So, stations see the results of their labors overnight. Therefore, the results of the November ratings come as no surprise.



There is joy at KEYE-TV (CBS), because Austin has a new #2 station. KEYE has been trapped in the TV cellar until a single programming change made the difference. Make no mistake: KEYE has arguably the most experienced anchor team in town, and they produce a good product. They couldn’t climb the ratings ladder until one thing happened—Jay Leno became the 9 O’clock hour-long lead-in show five nights a week on KXAN TV (NBC), the former number #2 station. KVUE TV (ABC) continues its reign as #1 at 10 p.m.



One change doesn’t usually make an immediate difference. This one did, and everyone in the business knew it would be bad for business.

Oh, this sort of parsimonious programming has deep roots in broadcast history and enjoyed great success. The so-called “variety show” was common-place in the 1950s and 1960s. Probably Lawrence Welk was the king. Welk’s “wonderfulla, wonderfulla” shows were re-runs on PBS. There were many others: Red Skelton, Gary Lewis, Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Diana Shore, Eddie Fisher, Cid Caesar, Jack Benny, Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers, and even “Laugh-in” to name a few. All were hosted by well-known personalities who featured stars and skits. The concept hatched in the days of network radio worked, and the programming still works. It is entertaining and relatively cheap.


It does not work five nights a week in the same time period! What were they thinking? I know what they were thinking: Saving money.


David Letterman (CBS) immediately benefitted from the Leno Effect, picking up older Leno audience members and others. Letterman shot up to #1. Conan O’Brien, who climbed into the old Leno time slot, is loved by younger audiences, but he is also lagging because of the lingering Leno Effect.


Jay Leno says he’d go back to his old time slot if asked. That isn’t going to happen. The network cast its lot with Conan. What is going to happen is that cable TV giant Comcast is going to buy controlling interest in NBC Universal. That’s the next big thing. It remains to be seen what spins out of that change.


Otherwise, there is little change in the local Austin ratings. KXAN TV remains #1 in the mornings. KVUE TV is #2. KVUE is #1 at 5 and 6, and KXAN is #2 in both time slots. The gyrations in news programming made no difference in ratings. KEYE choice of using Mix 94’s morning crew for a morning show made little headway. Similarly, its 4 p.m. “We Are Austin Live” is near the bottom, and “The Insider” doesn’t seem to work at 5 p.m. KNVA’s CW newscast at 9 barely has an audience, but KTBC TV (Fox) has owned that time slot for years. Still, at #4 KTBC is within three-tenths of a rating point of Jay Leno.


Poor Jay is on the icy, slick downward slope, and he is taking down the late, local news with him here and elsewhere.


© Jim McNabb, 2009