Local TV news needs a whiteboard session

By Joe Coffey |  The Fifth Estate

The time is right for local TV news stations to pioneer a new product. Current newscast audiences — older demographics with traditional viewing habits — are literally dying off. The idea of a newscast — that watching a video product daily will keep you knowledgeable about local things that matter — is fine, but it’s time for the newscast to give way to something that makes more sense.

The blank-whiteboard brainstorm meeting for creating this new product comes with one rule: anyone who says “but this is how we’ve been doing it” gets kicked out of the meeting. Local TV news would be much further along, and better, if its designers stopped relying on habits.

As it stands now, local news looks pretty much like it has for decades. It’s still a 30-minute show meant for big-screen viewing at certain times of the day. It is interrupted several times for extremely long commercials. Bits of news are trickled out on other platforms, but stations horde the lion’s share of good stuff for newscasts, seeking to preserve the concept of appointment viewing on a traditional platform that is, well, easier to sell ads for.

What would this new local TV news product look like if its creators were given permission to break away from the format and platform that once made dollars and sense?

Consider the blank-whiteboarding of entertainment TV that took place not long ago. The much-ballyhooed success of “Game of Thrones” was begat by HBO execs trying to pry audiences away from traditional network TV sitcoms. Starting with “Sex and the City” and “Band of Brothers,” the cable network figured out that producing truly well-written, movie-like episodes was the winning formula. NBC, ABC and CBS were no longer the only kingpins in the game.

We were floored by “The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire” and the like. Netflix, AMC, The History Channel, Hulu and any TV network or service that wanted in on the action joined in, creating critically acclaimed original content like “House of Cards,” “Breaking Bad,” “Vikings” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s a different ballgame now. Streaming devices allow us to watch these high-quality, well-written shows on our preferred devices any time we want, in any location that suits us.

Even more recent blank-whiteboarding is taking entertainment TV much further down the same path: get ready for bite-sized shows meant to be watched on devices like smartphones and tablets.

Right now, most of the six main Hollywood production companies are in the process of making blockbuster-production-level shows with A-list talent for a service called Quibi. Set for release in April 2020, Quibi is a streaming-video platform that will cater to your daily snippets of phone/tablet time. The idea is that instead of meandering through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. you can watch eight-minute episodes of shows produced by people who literally blank-whiteboarded what today’s entertainment video viewing should be like. Quibi (which is short for “quick bites”) is the brainchild of Hollywood heavyweight Jeffrey Katzenberg and Silicon Valley guru Meg Whitman.

In investor pitch meetings enroute to a $2 billion fundraising goal, Katzenberg and Whitman have presented loads of media consumer trend data showing that appointment-viewing on on-the-wall TV screens just isn’t working anymore. Traditional TV isn’t dead yet, but its audience is shrinking while new generations of viewers are scratching their screen-time itch in other ways. That sounds a lot like local TV news.

We’re all carrying little screens and staring at them several times a day. We’re all onboard with the idea that some kind of daily viewing of some kind of local product would indeed keep us knowledgeable about what matters. This product needs to look forward, not backward. It’s time for stations to let the millennials run a much-needed whiteboard brainstorm meeting. •

Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and marketer in the Corridor.