TV is profitable again

June 26, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · 1 Comment 

Literally tens of thousands of television professionals have lost their jobs in the past five years.  As the Internet has gained capacity and influence as a source of news and video-on-demand entertainment, traditional broadcast television has diminished in importance.  The old models just were not affordable anymore and owners slashed staff as a way to rescue their bottom line.

A little background is vital.  Owning a TV station over the past five decades has been like owning a license to print money.  Profit margins (how much out of every dollar of sales a company actually keeps in earnings) in excess of 40% were typical and 50% was far from unheard of.  By contrast, most businesses operate with single digit profit margins.  Grocery stores, for instance, think they’re doing great on a 6% profit margin.

So when advertising revenue dried up and audiences shriveled, TV owners were justifiably concerned to see their profit margins slip to 35%, then 30%, then 20%.  It was not a good trend and that led to the drastic thinning of the TV professional herd.  It was a harsh reality for those caught in the crossfire but understandable from a business perspective.

Now comes word that the decline may be over.  Margins are up 11% in 2010, according to an analysis by the New York investment firm M.C. Alcamo & Co., to an average 35%.   The analysis examined public companies  with significant broadcast holdings like Gannett, Meredith, Media General and Scripps.  Sinclair, known as a tightfisted operator of 58 television stations, posted a 45% margin in the first quarter.  Nexstar, which also owns more than 50 stations and has a reputation as a penny-pincher, posted a 41% margin.

So all those who got “downsized” will now be re-hired, right?  Not likely.

Former Gov. Spitzer Signs On with CNN

June 25, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 

Stand-up comedian and emigre from the Soviet Union Yakov Smirnof is right when he talks about the United States with his signature line–What a country!

Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former Democratic governor of New York is about to make a triumphant return to the spotlight as the co-host of a new political round-table talk show on CNN.  Spitzer was New York’s Attorney General before becoming governor but most recently was known as client #9 in the hooker for hire scandal that toppled him from the governor’s mansion in Albany.


Spitzer’s self-destructive behavior, once revealed, generated such vehement feelings of revulsion among so many that it’s barely conceivable he’s being given this chance at redemption.  The betrayal of his brilliant and beautiful wife was beyond offensive, people said at the time.  As Attorney General he preached against–and prosecuted with vigor–those involved in prostitution.  His hypocrisy was just staggering.

He is, of course, ever so grateful for the opportunity, according to the CNN press release.

So, does this say more about our country or the state of CNN?

We love to build ‘em up and then relish in their downfall, and that was true with Spitzer.  Reporters wrote scores of glowing profiles of the hard-driving, effective AG who took on the tobacco companies, consumer scammers and the crooks on Wall Street (before the latest round of Wall Street crooks).  And what a field day the media had when he imploded because he couldn’t or wouldn’t reign in a sexual appetite that reflected his superior, I’m above the law, entitled arrogance.

And now some say he’s back because we’re a forgiving nation. He’s said he’s sorry, done a stretch of keeping a low profile.  This is a story of triumph over adversity.  This is America–what a country.


This is a calculated risk by a cable network that is in deep trouble.  Maybe the shock value of hiring a disgraced governor can pump energy into a ratings challenged cable network.  This is America–what a country.

Spitzer will be taking over the 8pm slot with conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker.  They will be replacing Campbell Brown, who was the fourth or fifth to fail for CNN up against Bill O’Reilly on Fox.  CNN says the Spitzer/Parker hour will be “a spirited, nightly roundtable discussion program.”

Sounds like the old “Crossfire,”  and that brought this response from Reese Shonfeld:

“As the creator of the original Crossfire, I think I’m qualified to comment on the new television program created for Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker. To be blunt, I can’t think of a worse idea.”

Spitzer is certainly smart and articulate, although he never seems quite comfortable on TV.  The shock value of bringing on the disgraced sex addict will certainly bring in some viewers–for a show or two.   What a country!

#506de – HOW TO do compelling stand-up teases

June 24, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 

Stand-up teases are crucial to the success of a newscast, whether they are used in the cold open at the beginning of a newscast or as in-show teases.  A good one will keep audience, a poor one will drive people away and a mediocre one will allow viewers to simply tune out.  So…

TEASES ARE ADVERTISING.  Your mission with your stand up tease is to entice viewers to stick around to watch your news story.  Don’t just tell it, sell it.   If all you do is say: Mayor Perez was convicted–why then should I stick around to watch the story; you just told me what I need to know.   On the other hand, don’t be vague and manipulate the viewers with teases like: “The verdict is in.  Is he guilty or not?  I’ll tell you coming up.”  That tease, justifiably angers viewers who feel like you are playing silly games with them.

So, what should you do?

CREATE INTRIGUE, PROMISE SPECIFICS.  Improve your tease by giving one fact, then creating interest by promising specific coverage.  To use the Eddie Perez conviction as an example:  “The jury convicts Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez” is just not enough.  Adding, “I’ll have the full details” doesn’t help at all.  (In fact, ban the phrase–I’ll have details–from your stand up teases. Of course you’ll have details.  No surprise–or interest–in that.)   Try this:  “Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez is convicted.  Why his lawyer is criticizing the jury.”  Or “… The one piece of evidence that clinched the case for the prosecution.”  These teases tell a bit of the story but more importantly they create intrigue by promising to deliver on specific coverage.  It makes the viewer say, whoa, what’s that all about, why is he criticizing the jury, what was the crucial evidence?  I want to see that.

HOW OR WHY. We all know we have to answer the 5 Ws and H in a news story.  Teasing the WHO, WHAT, WHERE OR WHEN of the story often (but not always) seems manipulative and the stuff of valid parody.  “A well known politician is arrested.  Is it the mayor?  We’ll tell you who coming up.”  YUK!  “A massive outbreak of Ebola in a Connecticut town.  I’ll tell you where coming up.”  Also YUK!!!   It’s much better to promote the WHY or the HOW of the story.  That virtually guarantees you will be making a specific promise about your coverage.

“The mayor of Bridgeport is arrested on corruption charges.  How investigators say they uncovered the scheme.” Or “…Why city residents are still backing him.”  These teases do indeed tell some of the story, but either second line also creates real intrigue and makes me want to hear the whole story you promised.

“A Hamden High School teacher is put on administrative leave for having nude pictures of students.  Why police say they haven’t and can’t arrest him.”  Again, you do need to tell a bit of the story, but you must complete the tease by promising specific coverage of the HOW or the WHY.

YOU.  Of course, using the word “you” is almost always good in broadcast news writing.  Remember, TV is an intimate medium.  Most people watch TV one at a time. You’re not preaching to a congregation of thousands. You’re having an intimate conversation, one-on-one, with a viewer.   If you can tease a story with a reason for that one person to stay tuned, do it.  “An outbreak of Ebola virus in Hartford.  How it got here and what you can do to protect your family.  Coming up.”

WRITE TIGHT.  Stand up teases should be 8-12 seconds long, usually just two sentences. There is no need to say your name.  You are not the story and saying your name slows down the cold open or in-show tease needlessly.  Edit out the phrase “I’ll tell you..” as in “I’ll tell you how it got here…”  Cut right to it.  “How it got here…”

MAKE IT A PRIORITY.  Yes, you must do a stand-up tease every day.  Don’t ask if you need to do one.  You do.  The producers already are counting on it.  Also, your stand-up tease is likely the first thing viewers will see after prime time when they make a choice to stay and watch the news or turn the channel.  Take some time to think about your stand-up teases.  If you can do something visual or tactile or reference your surroundings, absolutely do it. Ask yourself:

  • do I make a promise of specific coverage?
  • Have I teased the HOW or WHY?
  • Does this tease really make me want to stick around and watch?  If not, think of another tack and do it again.

Happy teasing!

#506de – Paying for News

June 20, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · 1 Comment 

On Friday night (June 18, 2010) “20/20,” the ABC News magazine aired an exclusive interview with Melody Granadillo.  She’s the former girlfriend of Joran van der Sloot who is charged with killing a Peruvian woman and also suspected in the death of Natalee Holloway.


There was Chris Cuomo talking with the young Granadillo on the beautiful beaches of Aruba, where she had frolicked as a 16 year old with van der Sloot.  She was head over heels for him, she said.  Like many teenage girls, she kept a record of her first love.  As Cuomo reported:  “We begin inside this little blue diary, which contains photos and material Melody licensed to us.”

Wait a second.  Back that up. “…photos and material Melody licensed to us.”

Turns out ABC didn’t score this exclusive interview solely with a persuasive argument that the world needs to know Melody’s side of the story.  They paid for it.  It’s unclear exactly how much, but there’s no doubt Melody got paid for her interview.

American news networks and newspapers all claim they do not pay for interviews.  That would be unseemly and a violation of journalism ethics.  British news organizations, somehow have no ethical dilemma with paid interviews and do it all the time.  But in the US, the thinking is: how could the public trust whatever is being said by someone getting paid to say it?   So virtually every major news organization, in its policy handbook, expressly prohibits paying for news interviews.

So how do they get around it?  Just as Chris Cuomo described; they pay a “licensing fee” for photos and video.  To some extent it can be justified.  News organizations pay freelancers and stringers, who are not employed by them, for their photos and video, why shouldn’t a newsmaker get paid if s/he provides photos and video?  OK, so ABC might have paid a couple hundred, even a couple thousand dollars to her, right?  I doubt it.

Three months ago, court documents in the case of Caylee Anthony, the murdered toddler in central Florida, revealed that ABC paid for Anthony’s family to stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando for three nights and an ABC insider told one industry blog that ABC paid $200,000 for the rights to use Anthony family home video and photos.

And this came out just as another 300 were laid off by ABC.  Ouch.

It’s not just ABC.  NBC reportedly “licensed photos” to the tune of $5,000 for an exclusive Today show interview with Caylee’s mom.

This dirty little secret of licensing materials has been grist for industry blogs lately and the March court revelations about the swanky hotel stay for the Anthonys must have been embarrassing for ABC.  I suspect that’s why 20/20 producers had Chris Cuomo slip in that line about Melody licensing her diary to them.  It’s not exactly full disclosure but it is a start.

#506de – Broadcast News Soon Extinct

June 20, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 


Talk about a dramatic headline!   It may not be the first time someone has said this, but this time the prophet of doom is Andrew Tyndall, a well-known, well-respected news industry analyst.   To paraphrase the old EF Hutton ads, when he speaks people listen.

Andrew Tyndall is the author of The Tyndall Report which tracks network newscasts each and every day.  He claims to have watched and logged every single newscast on every network since 1987.  He compiles reports about how many minutes of news time each network spends on campaign coverage, health care, the Iraq war, the BP oil spill, etc.   This is a guy who knows what he’s talking about.

Tyndall made his comments in an interview with

“Broadcast television is an industry in decline. There will probably be no such thing as over-the-air television 10 years from now. That doesn’t mean that the network news divisions will disappear. There will still be a demand for video journalism, just not on a broadcast platform. The task facing the network news divisions over the next decade is how to manage the transition from broadcasting to providing video to be used across multiple platforms.”

It’s no secret that network newscasts have been hemorrhaging viewers.  The downward trend has been accelerating for more than a decade. The causes are both external and self-inflicted.  The Internet and mobile technology provide news updates to anyone who wants them anywhere any time, making appointment television for a nightly newscast obsolete.  And the increasing mixture of inconsequential and sensational items into the networks’ daily offerings in an attempt to chase elusive viewers has eroded the tolerance of news loyalists.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a world without the nightly newscasts.  On most days, perhaps, when the world chugs along with the usual political developments and minor calamities around the globe, it’s easy to see the nightly newscasts as irrelevant.  But when something monumental occurs we all clamor to our TV screens to share the experience together.  Think 9/11 or the election of Barack Obama or the miracle plane landing on the Hudson or even the death of Princess Di.  That’s what TV news really does; it allows then entire community–city, state, country, world–to experience something together.

On the local level, the great consolidation has begun.  In several cities one of the TV stations has given up on producing local newscasts.  And we’re not just talking about tiny outposts where the lead story is a cat stuck in a tree.  Last year WTVH, the CBS affiliate in Syracuse, NY, shut down its news operation, laying off the 40 remaining news staffers.  It’s not like this was some Johnny-come-lately station.  WTVH is the original TV station in the market and at one time was the news leader.  It just became unaffordable to continue to produce nightly newscasts, the owners said at the time.

Part of this gloomy outlook for broadcast news is just business.  The old models of large news staffs just don’t work for the bean-counters.  That leads to massive layoffs which threaten the quality of the product.  The networks all have laid off thousands, leaving them unable to cover, for instance, the failed Times Square bomber, the BP oil spill and the Nashville flooding all at the same time.  So the Nashville floods got short shrift and minimal coverage.  The decrease in in quality leads more viewers to abandon ship, which leads to more layoffs and the downward spiral continues.  Maybe Tyndall is right.

#506DE- TV News Excellence…Not Necessarily an Oxymoron

June 19, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · 1 Comment 

MurrowLogo Final (2)It is very much in vogue these days to criticize TV news as silly, vacuous, entertainment-driven and downright awful.  It’s fun and easy to do.  Fun because it’s easy to do.

Turn on a TV newscast and you are overwhelmed with endless stories on Natalie Holloway, Michael Jackson or the stick-up at a local Piggly Wiggly.  Meanwhile, war rages in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands die from starvation in Darfur and a decimated State House press corps is ill-equipped to cover or explain the budget crisis.   A battered public could be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing happening on the nightly news worth watching.

But that would be wrong.

There’s no denying so much of what passes for news on daily newscasts is drivel.  It’s all too often superficial, predictable and even laughable.  What once was produced as satire on Saturday Night Live is seriously offered as the first broadcast draft of history.

Still, a lot of good–even excellent–television news coverage is being aired.   Some of that good work was honored this week by the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Edward R. Murrow Awards.   NBC News earned five Murrow awards, CBS News earned four.

The 15 minute winning entry from NBC in the Breaking News category tells the amazing story of the Hudson River landing of a USAirways jet just minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia airport.  It is riveting and shows the power of TV news.  NBC captured the drama and pathos of the day.

TV news “teases,” those advance snippets designed to entice you to stay tuned, are often maligned–validly–for being sensational and manipulative.  On this night NBC promised to report what went wrong AND what went right.  And they delivered, with clear writing, graphics and video that explained how the jet engines sucked in a flock of geese.  They captured the emotion of Captain Sully using every bit of his experience and skill in bringing the aircraft down safely in the middle of the Hudson.

Other award-winning entries covered the continuing genocide in Darfur, Iran’s election crisis and the exploitation of the Amazon jungle by Texaco.  It IS possible to be a well-informed citizen of the world by watching TV news.

On the local level, award winners included coverage of plane and train crashes but also an extensive examination of the health care debate.  This coverage from Boston went far beyond dueling political soundbites as it explored existing problems and likely affects of the health care reform bill.

And an Atlanta station tracked the $7.9 billion of stimulus money awarded to the state of Georgia.  Again, this coverage went far beyond the headlines and served their viewers well.

These examples are overwhelmed by the nonsense that is the growing majority of TV news.  I have judged numerous TV news contests and I can safely say some of the award-winning entries would have been laughed out of the judging years ago.  But, the good work does stand as a reminder that all of TV news should not be dismissed.

It also stands as a reminder of what could be.

Inconsistencies = interesting

June 13, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 

Some random thoughts on this week’s readings…

At first blush, it would seem we’ve been getting some mixed messages in our readings about good writing (Zinsser and Kalm’s 506 blog).

On the one hand we are advised to write about what we know.  On the other, create a persona.  On the one hand we need to gain the reader’s trust.  On the other, ignore the reader’s opinion altogether.

Now that we have four hands (or more!) how are we to rectify all this?  Is it possible for seemingly contradictory advice to coexist and be meaningful?

Sure it is.  This is what makes good writing (and good thinking) interesting and nuanced.  Few of us are entirely one thing or think entirely consistently.   Those who are too consistently singing the same tune are boring and become caricatures–Bill O’Reilly and Keith Oberman are surely “personas” who have become tedious.

A persona can be a useful method for finding a voice but an authentic voice will also allow for human inconsistency.

It is, indeed, important to make an argument with each sentence.  Good writing is a good argument made.  Too many, “I think” and “perhaps” and “very” make for weak arguments and weak writing.  Self assurance is necessary to make a strong point.  But, (is this another seeming inconsistency?) too much self-assurance is arrogance and an arrogant argument that refuses to even allow for the possibility of another opinion is tiresome and ineffective because it becomes easy to tune it out.

I think, perhaps, this is a very interesting way to look at it.

#506DE – Linked

June 12, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · 3 Comments 

My LinkedIn profile has been updated, rewritten.

#506DE – TMI

June 12, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 

I was struck by several passages in this week’s 506 blog.  A few ramblings now inspired by this paragraph:

It is difficult to separate the rise of the Internet from the rise in self-publishing technologies and reality television and tabloid culture, but in the last decade, we got to know everyone a little bit better. We learned TMI (Too Much Information) about our neighbors and our news anchors, our mailmen and our mayors. As the established narratives of our institutions collapsed, our individual narratives became increasingly front and center

One of the best things about the Internet is the democratizing effect it has had.  It used to be only a few had access to a printing press and could publish their thoughts to a wide audience.  Now, thanks to easy blogging on the web, anyone can.

And a lot of people are!  According to Technorati, 133,000,000 blogs have been indexed   since 2002.

And while that’s generally a good thing, the curmudgeon in me says I’m just not interested in reading the self-important musings of every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Of course, no one says I must read them, and I don’t.  But it is all part of the societal change Prof. Kalm identified as the TMI factor.  The Oprah/Montel/Dr. Phil/Jerry Springer phenomenon has everyone confessing their innermost secrets (when they are real) to an apparently wide audience eating this stuff up.  Frankly, I don’t care at all about someone sleeping with their mother’s boyfriend, or whatever.  There seems to be no sense of shame left in some folks.

And all that is exacerbated by people with the exaggerated arrogance to believe others might care about what they have to say.   I suppose one of the reasons I have been hesitant to  use Twitter and Facebook is that I can’t imagine my mundane thoughts and actions are of the slightest interest to the masses.  Using Twitter and Facebook as a business tool I can understand, although I really haven’t seen anyone doing that exceptionally well or effectively.  I’d like to see examples, if anyone cares to share.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep my lunch plans and wishes that the sun would come out to myself and those I can talk with face to face.

#506DE – Bio Take 4

June 6, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 

Here’s the irreverent 2-sentence take..the one that gets closest to the truth but could never be used anywhere officially:

Paul Lewis works for a rich philanthropist, helping him give away his money and wishing roles could be reversed.  He used to be a reporter and news executive, back when journalism was a thriving, proud profession.

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