Redefining Regional TV – American Style
11 May 2008 1 comment. tbs.pm/2195
So a multi-channel and multi-media market means that a commercial television network like ITV is bound to lose market share, ratings and advertising spend. Or does it? James Barrington spots a lesson or two from over the pond.
ITV regionalism is all but dead now, along with its nearly forgotten sisters like Southern and Thames. The ‘federalised’ UK network is gone, in favour of a unitary ‘single source’ ITV brand, replete with paler regulatory requirements and a shrinking commitment to public service television.
What about elsewhere in the world ?
Let us look at America, where multi channel TV has long saturated the market. Americans watch an average of 8 hours of television per day. There are still several truly national networks that are free to air. The great institutions of NBC, ABC and CBS carry on as ever, latterly supplemented by the growing FOX operation. The more modest but still valiant PBS survives, maintaining its lonely vigil flying the flag for public service commitment.
The flagship broadcast of any major American channel is the national evening news. It unfurls the banner of network identity. That flagship in America has for many years been the 6.30pm bulletin.
At stake is $450 million in advertising revenue. The anchor Katie Couric will be paid $15 million per annum to front this daily coast to coast weekday broadcast for CBS. This is 30 times more in salary than the President of the United States. Her equivalents at NBC (Brian Williams) and ABC (Charles Gibson) earn no less.
One element of that news service is the network’s own regionalism, as seen through input to the national bulletin from affiliate stations in local markets across the country.
Any major network will, across the 50 states, have perhaps 200 or more affiliate stations and each will cover their local ‘broadcast market’ with both regional news and submissions to the National newsroom, of any domestic stories of National import.
For major stories, networks will often fly in their own national reporters. Really big stories may even bring the network anchor to present a bulletin from the scene of a particular story. This ‘personalises’ the attention that the channel appears to give to any major national story that erupts locally.
Whether WNBC in New York, KNBC in LA, or any of the myriad other local stations across the country, each will present its own local news show in addition to the National bulletins from New York, perhaps covering local accidents, a Governor’s trip to a region, or a celebrity guest flying in. This is big news for the small stations of a network.
Despite a growing multi-channel subscription environment, it is the traditional ‘free to air’ National networks that many in America still tune to each day for major entertainment.
Advertising revenue is ratings dependent so programmes have to be so immediately successful or the axe can fall surprisingly early in a new series. American Television these days is producing some of its best ever programming.
The President of CBS recently said he wished someone could take FOX’s “American Idol” show and kill it, as ratings are so huge, that the show, now in season seven continues to dominate ‘prime time’; so much so that NBC is bringing forward the scheduling of their the new season of programming by almost 6 weeks.
A typical day on NBC starts at 6am as the network’s traditional peacock symbol boldly spins into view, heralding news headlines and revolving into the caption for each each headline, as the ‘NBC TODAY SHOW’ theme by John Williams, opens the broadcast in a blaze of glory.
Anchors Matt Lauer and Merideth Viera will stay on screen for the next three hours, with both heavier news stories and lighter celebrity interviews, in a careful mix; whether interviewing the President of the United States or covering major issues with national correspondents.
Using local affiliate studios for interviews or to cover a local story thrown into the national spotlight, regionalism in broadcasting is still well alive across the USA, just as it slowly dies in the ever more centralising UK television operation.
The NBC Today show moved out of famous ‘studio 3b’ in Rockefeller Plaza to the ground level ‘studio 1a’ on the corner of the building. With a transparent glass frontage, crowds gather each morning to watch the show in production but for more serious news, a screen divides the presenters from the outside world.
These presenters even come out into the plaza to greet their audience, and run summer specials outside the studio frontage.
When the Today show is finished, the networks split to local markets. WNBC will present ‘Good Morning NEW YORK’ as hundreds of other affiliates look to their own at this point. The bread and butter of the local stations is their access to local advertising dollars, vital to their own existence.
Traditionally early to mid afternoon has been dominated by the famous long running daytime soaps; with more regional news shows by late afternoon or early evening. A game show with big prizes will often compete to attract viewers before the network news starts at 6.30.
As mentioned earlier, Brian Williams will read the NBC Nightly News, Katie Couric the CBS Evening News and Charles Gibson ABC World News Tonight.
As the night continues, whether it be with quality drama, great comedy or even a major game show – American television still holds its’ head up high in quality and production values.
In the later evening NBC for example will in the ‘Dateline’ programme reflect and interview on the stories of the day, whether from a consumer or voter point of view or some topical newsworthy angle, before ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jay Leno, followed by more Variety at midnight, ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’, NBC starts to wind down for the day.
Back in the U.K. of the nineties, the line that ‘a single source ITV might take on the likes of NBC, and others in Europe too, to produce ‘world class television’ like ‘Friends’ or ‘The Simpsons’ was once claimed as the new magic formula by ITV bosses.
This plan was promoted to persuade UK politicians to allow the deregulation and repeated merger of UK stations in order to to create ‘National Champions’ in the broadcast field. Has that happened? Rather the opposite. ITV has been enfeebled in recent years and is only now, under skilled new management from Michael Grade, beginning the slow fight back. It seems the real agenda was City driven and about ‘shareholder value’ , with the consumer viewers placed very much in second place. This could now be changing, but we have waited a long time (from the disastrous Broadcasting Act of 1990) to get the formula right and to start moving UK viewers needs back into primacy.