Zeros and Ones in a Box

The television station business is terrible and, given today's uncertain economy, the future is ominous.

For decades local stations were cash cows providing owners with huge profit margins. News operations represent the biggest budget item at most stations in large part because of the growth of local news programming in most markets in the 80's and 90's. Not so anymore. The television audience has been dispersing over an array of alternative choices. One result is that local sales revenues have been declining and, for some time now, stations have been aggressively cutting costs. All the least painful and disruptive cuts were made long ago. Stations must find a new way to do business.

News production is labor and capital intensive, and even amortizing costs over additional news programs is problematic in the current sales environment. Stations have already been through several rounds of cost cuts. The result, putting aside the star personalities, graphics and a few special features, is that local newscasts are pretty much similar.

The Fox and NBC owned local station groups have announced they are beginning a local news service that will make it possible to share video and reduce costs. The service will officially start in Philadelphia early next year at WTXF (Fox) and WCAU (CBS), where these stations have been conducting a "proof of concept" since last summer. Subsequently the service will roll out to major cities where each network has an English language television station. The video will also be available to other local media organizations in each market.

John Wallace, president of NBC Local Media and an industry innovator, said, "By pooling resources to provide video coverage of general market events, we can ensure our stations are covering the news of the day, and at the same time, focus our efforts on the type of specialized reporting that defines our brands and differentiates our stations within their communities." So some of the cost savings from newsgathering will be reinvested in enterprise stories, franchise pieces and special series that are unique. But headcount, capital and facility expenses will be reduced.

When I was a senior executive at CBS News twenty years ago, before the Berlin Wall had fallen, Tiananmen Square and the Internet boom, I met with one of my counterparts at a competitor who proffered this proposal: "let's share news content." He said, "News is a commodity, we are each spending too much money and it all looks the same." He even provided a scenario, "You cover the front door of the Kremlin and we will cover the back door, that way we each don't have to send two crews there."

At the time The CBS Evening News was number one in the national ratings. This was no accident. We were very competitive in the field, fighting for every exclusive story, interview or picture. CBS News also offered an abundance of outstanding original reporting from its powerful team of correspondents. CBS News produced success.

Back then, complicated operational and anti-trust problems helped nix the proposal. More importantly, such a move would have sapped our competitive edge and distinctiveness, it would have discouraged original reporting, it would have accelerated homogeneity among the evening newscasts, it would have discouraged our journalists, it would have been disruptive and it would have resulted in a dramatic reduction of our resources.

Now, two decades later, a technological explosion has altered the media landscape into hundreds of channels, multiple satellites paths, Internet sites and mobile phone service providers. Get any content, anywhere, anytime. Content is acquired and repackaged from multiple sources, including embedded content, "user" supplied video and EPK's. Correspondents are more likely to be "packagers" who don't even have to leave the studio. More and more they rely on the same news wires for information. But packaging is not original reporting. Loudly offering an opinion is not experienced analysis. Wikipedia and Google searches do not replace thorough research.

Original reporting, including investigative pieces, quality story telling and thoughtful analysis, helps a news organization build a bond with its audience on each of its platforms. It is how a responsible news organization serves the public. It is how our Democracy thrives and remains strong particularly in a crisis such as 9/11 or the collapsing economy.

These elements are at the heart of journalism and make up the identity and character of a news organization. Without them, to paraphrase the great Edward R. Murrow, it is nothing but ones and zeros in a box