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9 Thoughts on Local Television, Social Media, and the Waldo Canyon Fire

Two weeks ago today (or two weeks ago last night – still not clear), the Waldo Canyon Fire started.  It’s now more than 95% contained and has been 100% contained on all Colorado Springs boundaries for several days now.  It feels like a good time to organize some ideas about the local television coverage of the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history.

Nothing here is offered as definitive.  Instead, it’s a handful of my personal thoughts, ideas, observations, and opinions.

The 9 thoughts below Continue reading

Thoughts on Marketing from Inside Local Television Stations

I just ended a 14 year run in local television marketing and promotion that took me from Grand Rapids to Chicago back to Grand Rapids to Colorado Springs.  My short description of the work: running an in-house agency to build brands, drive viewership, and increase our overall standing with all stakeholders.  So, my side was the business-to-consumer marketing that results in business-to-business selling of audiences (basic content around advertising model).

I’ve greatly enjoyed the first decade and a half of my career.  I’ve worked for some great companies and done excellent work with wonderful people.

Here are some thoughts and observations from my experience in the local media industry.  They’re focused primarily on traditional television broadcasting, rather than multi-platform content distribution and marketing.

These thoughts and observations are simplified and bullet-pointed.  I’m happy to elaborate upon or talk through any of this in more detail.  Use the Connect with Ethan page to find me – or just leave a comment on this post.

TV set, television set, t.v., tee vee, boob toob, boob tube

What a TV looked like when my career began. (Image from Photobucket user alex54j )


Working in Local TV Marketing and Promotion is Fun

  • It’s a nice combination of creativity and strategy.
  • You get to work extensively with words and ideas.
  • You get to create and manipulate images, both still and moving.
  • You get to work with music, sound effects, and natural/ambient sound.
  • Promos are always more exciting than the news packages – you get to pack all the best video and sound into :30!

The Work Itself is There, Then Gone

  • This is a basic function of linear broadcasting.
  • The display of your work is immediately fleeting and the work itself is highly perishable.
  • You get plenty of immediate gratification; what you just made can be put on TV within minutes.

Marketing to Anonymous Masses Provides Limited Satisfaction

  • The ability to track and measure, to connect directly efforts to results, is weak.  Research budgets are limited.  Nielsen’s measurements of viewing behavior are (insert adjective with negative connotation here).
  • In short, it’s more art than science.
  • Very few people like advertising.  It’s an interruption of what they’ve come to see or experience.
  • Nearly everyone wants and expects content and marketing to be increasingly personalized and customized (rightfully).
  • Television broadcasting is linear and monolithic, not personalized or customized.
  • It’s impossible to be consistently relevant, and therefore satisfying, to a mass of people.
  • That’s because they’re not a monolith; they are individuals who happen to be consuming the same media at the same time.
  • Tools like Facebook have taken phone call and email feedback to a new level that approaches direct relationships.  Even those individuals, though, tend to be treated as a mass.

Local News is Very Static and Homogenous

  • Every station has pretty much the same stories as one another and the same kinds of stories every night.
  • Every newscast provides pretty much the same experience it did a decade ago … but shinier.  It’s predictable.
  • Locally, this is in part due to stations all watching each other.
  • Nationally, this is in part due to all stations being consulted by the same handful of consultants.
  • Overall, this is because “news” is defined rigidly by the journalistic institution.
  • This is why ubiquitous, generic “area man” headlines from The Onion, America’s Finest News Source, work so well.
  • This is why we all immediately recognize the visual and verbal patterns in the videos that close this post.
  • The formula from which newscasts are made seems to work well enough that there’s no compelling reason to make anything more than minor tweaks and conservative decisions.  Related: newspapers have only just found their savior and his ideas don’t seem especially radical.

Financially, Local TV Broadcasting is Challenged

  • As with most businesses, costs are constantly increasing.
  • This effect is mitigated slightly by technology and automation.  The hubbing of core operations, for example, is a fundamental operating strategy for Lin Media (22 broadcast signals originating from just 2 master control centers; 100% of traffic operations run from just 1 location (see 2010 annual report, page 4).
  • Revenue is flat/declining and dominated by TV revenue.  Though it varies by station and company, I’d guess that 90-95% of revenue is still generated by television ad sales.
  • Profit margins, naturally, are tighter than ever.  A broadcast license was once a license to print money; stations enjoyed profit margins above 50%.  Though it varies by station and company, I’d guess that they’re more in the 15-20% range in a good year.
  • For a stronger future, some local news operations will have to be shut down (see above – Static and Homogenous).  This is a natural result of competition.
  • As fragmented as the media landscape is (that fragmentation fundamentally threatening the TV business), television is still the only place to find mass.  This is why network prime time shows command higher ad rates, despite smaller audiences.
  • Among the younger set, it’s cool to hate TV and its advertising.  However, Apple loves it!  Go figure.
  • Television still enjoys an amazing windfall from political advertising.

Local Television Advertising’s Effective, But …

  • Is it cost effective?  By migrating dollars into other channels, the large-scale, sophisticated television advertisers say no.
  • I just finished Joseph Jaffe’s Life after the 30 Second Spot, published in 2005.  At the time, DVRs were the threat to effectiveness.  Forms of digital capture and distribution have increased dramatically in the past 6 years.
  • Digital pureplay companies offer relatively inexpensive marketing and advertising options … and they’re 100% trackable.
  • With inexpensive tools to create and publish yourself, “every company is a media company.”  There’s less need to pay for exposure.
  • Some traditional TV advertisers have flipped the situation upside down, selling advertising themselves.

Local Television Stations Are Important

  • Local television stations have incredibly strong brands.  They’re local instituions.
  • They inform, prepare, and connect people; they provide a sense of local identity and community.
  • People take your calls when you tell them you’re calling from a local TV station.
  • The role and responsibility of the best local news and weather teams will continue to be important, no matter how distribution changes.  The challenge there is to stay relevant day-to-day, rather than simply being a go-to place in times of crisis.
  • High definition television signals are free for the taking – and they’re the cleanest form of television signal.

In Summary

I’m grateful for all the opportunities this industry has presented me and the dozens of excellent humans who helped me along the way.  I hope for the best for the individuals who make the industry.

As you might expect, I’ve got many more thoughts, feelings, and ideas.  I’m happy to have a threaded comment conversation, a real conversation, or an email exchange about any of this.

My Local Television Employers

Related Posts at

Upside Down: Traditional Advertising Relationships

Good News: You Get to Decide What’s News!

Broadcast Television: In Praise of a Relic

Our Nation’s Common Medium: Why Just One?


Bonus Videos
Both employ coarse language. The first is more slowly paced. The second is more direct and more coarse. Both employ the immediately recognizable patterns to which I referred earlier in this post.




Good News: You Get to Decide What’s “News!”

A couple experiences demanded of me this post, though I fear I the question won’t be answered here due to complexity and variance.

First: lingering thoughts about my recent post about ForbesLife magazine, in which advertising functions as actual content.  What is normally seen as interrupting noise seems to be a legitimate value add in that publication, which is why I identified it as kin to bridal and fashion mags.  How far does that phenomenon extend?

Second: the first comment on a video I posted on the News First 5 (local NBC affiliate) Facebook page – “this is still news?”  That, in response to a piece of video that was broadcast 36 hours earlier about a victim fighting off a pair of would-be home invaders about 48 hours earlier.  If you follow the link, you’ll see my unnecessary, but polished defense.

So, what is news? In the first scenario, it’s advertising.  In the second, it’s extremely perishable.  There are nearly as many answers to the question as there are people to give it consideration.

Those answers, though, are decreasingly dependent upon or influenced by the one-time gatekeepers who produce and sell a traditional form of “news.”

action news, TV news, television news, news, local news, graphics, live local latebreaking

Action News!

I’ll spare us all the rote litany of tired criticisms (think “if it bleeds it leads”) that have been lobbed at mainstream media for decades.  I’ll take a short cut straight to: you get to decide what’s news.

House fire or traffic accident in a part of town I’ve never visited?  Not news.  Big sale at a retail shop or new location of a restaurant I occasionally patronize?  Definitely news.

((Off-topic, but worth noting here: Action News is all over the former, but won’t touch the latter.  The former’s a consequence of broadcasting to an anonymous mass of people whose only definite common trait is that they share a defined geographical territory.  The latter’s a consequence of a “church and state” separation of advertising and content creation to erect and defend an idealized notion of objectivity.))

Want to follow attention-getting, dramatic story lines this election season?  Want to understand more truly the issues and candidates instead?  Totally your call either way.

See?  You get to decide.

You get to choose from an increasing array of sources through an increasing number of channels.  You get to pick what to read and what not to read.  You get to determine what to see and what not to see.  Viable information consumption options range from spoon-fed to ultimate control.

So why a common body of “news?”  Agenda setting remains an influencing factor.  Every other outlet chasing down whatever one of them shows interest in means many of us will read or see the same things.  The dispersal of the one Associated Press story across several hundred news sites also assures a common base of news.  The incessant retweets of the moment’s celebrity death spread insanely fast as they jump across different social channels, at least in part due to the self-important rush to “beat” the wire.  If the use of all sources, channels and stories was charted by consumer or consumer groups, the boolean overlap is what’s generally regarded as “news.”

To the degree I control my consumption, I define news as information previously unknown or perceived differently that possesses one or more of three characteristics:

  • Important: big things that happen about which I should probably know – things beyond my control that affect me or people I love in a significant way
  • Helpful: information upon which I can act or through which I become more prepared for what’s next – makes me “better” in some way for having learned it
  • Remarkable: the kind of thing I’d pass along to a family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker – because it’s unexpected, hilarious, fascinating, outrageous or similar

But that’s just me.  Have you a definition for “news?”

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