Another Local TV Crisis

The network-station relationship that has dominated local TV for decades is doomed.

Local network-affiliated stations used to be the only places to see network shows. That’s changing quickly. Networks are airing their soap operas on SoapNet, sharing shows with cable networks, making programs available on Video on Demand and even selling programs to viewers directly on the internet.

The networks clearly know something the stations don’t. Keep in mind that networks usually make more money by owning some of their stations than from the network itself. They wouldn’t cut out the stations if they didn’t know they’d make money some other way. They’ve made some concessions to local stations, in some cases giving them a cut of the sales in their regions.

Right now, you could add all of those “alternate” viewings together and they still wouldn’t compete with the number of viewers watching on local TV stations. But the new technology is starting to eat away at local station viewership–and revenue.

As more viewers become accustomed to downloading a show and watching whenever they want, how will a local station keep its audience? Why watch “24” on Monday night if you can download it straight to your settop box and watch whenever you want?

The solution for local stations’ survival is to come up with exclusive content. Virtually every station must create its own content. For most stations, the only local program is news. They must do more.

If it’s done right, this will mean a new round of hiring for TV stations, instead of the layoffs and cutbacks that are so common now. The current thinking, “do more with less,” will give way to a new thinking, “do much more with more.”

Surely the network-station relationship will continue in some form. But stations will run far more locally-produced shows instead of the mix of network and syndicated programming that fills the schedule now.

The End of Television As We Know It

I’ve worked at local TV stations since I was 16, so it is with great trepidation I predict the end of the industry as we know it.

Former CBS News President Fred Friendly once told me owning a local TV station was like having a license to print money. Mr. Friendly didn’t know the license came with an expiration date in the early 21st Century.

Back in Friendly’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, people in most American cities could watch three or four local television stations. Viewers had only one place to watch a given program; if a show ran on Channel 4, it wouldn’t also turn up on another channel.

Fast forward to 2006. TV viewers can choose from a few dozen or a few hundred television channels. On a given day, you can watch Everybody Loves Raymond up to nine times on two channels, or select any of 6 showings of Becker spread across three channels. Sex & The City? Four episodes a day on one local broadcast channel and two cable channels, plus On Demand episodes available whenever you want it.

See the problem? Stations that were practically printing money just a few years ago are seeing the value of their syndicated programming dwindle, because those shows are available elsewhere. Do viewers really care whether they watch Seinfeld on a local station or on a Superstation? For the 88% of Americans with access to cable or satellite (1), there is no difference.

The transition to digital television compounds the problem: digital stations have the ability to multicast, that is, broadcast several programs at the same time. Stations could easily have more than 800 hours to program every week. If they program the music videos and sitcoms that are on dozens of other channels, they will get lost on the cable and satellite lineups.

Local television stations can no longer depend on networks and syndicators. They must schedule the only programs that are truly exclusive: programs they produce themselves.

Local programming has dwindled over the decades. In most cases, it currently means “news,” and most local stations run anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours of news a day.

News is a great start, but it won‘t fill 800 hours a week. NBC is on the right track with WeatherPlus, a local-national hybrid that will give The Weather Channel serious competition once it’s available in more homes.

Now is the time for ideas:

Local court shows, using real cases and real courtrooms. Somewhere between Court TV and Judge Judy lies a serious but compelling local series.
Food programs. These used to be a staple of local “women’s” programs with guests who were right out of Home Ec. Update the concept for today’s lifestyle by bringing in chefs from local restaurants to teach viewers how to make some favorite dishes. (Restaurants might be hesitant to give away their secrets until they see how many customers they gain from the publicity.)
Local sports: high school football, minor league baseball, stock car racing and gymnastics tournaments are going on in every community. The production can be as simple or as elaborate as you like.
Call-in shows. Let viewers ask questions about their health, their gardens, their cars and their computers. These shows are already popular on radio, but on TV viewers can e-mail photos of their wilted plants for the expert (and the viewers) to see.

This is just a starting point. Station groups will quickly see what works in one market and add it to the lineup in another market. They will find opportunities to share segments and entire programs. Some may even create the next syndication hit.

The expiration date is approaching. What stations do now will determine whether they gradually die or start printing money again by creating a new Golden Age of Local Television.

(1) 2005 Residential Cable and Satellite TV Satisfaction Survey, J.D. Power & Associates.

Not Ready to give up good music

I stand by my earlier post that I don’t care what celebrities think about most issues.

I like Toby Keith and I like the Dixie Chicks. I like their music. I don’t care about their politics. Why would anyone get upset over their views? They’re entitled to their opinions. But their not experts in the fields of war and politics, so those opinions don’t mean any more than yours or mine. To get upset over statements by Keith or Natalie Maines grants them some type of authority they do not deserve.

If we’re deciding whether to go to war, we shouldn’t ask the Dixie Chicks. They’re not authorities. If the issue is music, you couldn’t ask for a better authority. I won’t allow their opinions to rob me of the pleasure of their music.

This weekend, I saw the video for Not Ready to Make Nice. Then I saw a CNN story about the song. It claimed you have to “read between the lines” to hear their response to the controversy over their comments about President Bush.

Whoever wrote that obviously did not listen to the song. What begins as a very good song becomes a spectacular song in the second verse. The lyrics and the music break from the structure of the rest of the song. It starts with well-chosen lyrics and powerful instrumentation. You may not agree with what Maines sings, but the way she sings it is moving.

“It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger.
And how in the world can the words that I said
send somebody so over the edge
that they’d write me a letter, say that I’d better
shut up and sing or my life will be over.”

The message is not between the lines. It’s very clear.

It’s also clear that this song joins a long list of songs you can appreciate without completely agreeing with the singer’s point of view. I don’t want to imagine there’s no heaven, but John Lennon’s Imagine is a beautiful song. I might have sung Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman in the car a time or two. It doesn’t mean I want to be a woman. I appreciate the songs purely for the sake of the music and the musicians without adopting their philosophy as part of my life.

Not Ready to Make Nice is a musical masterpiece.


I came home from work tonight with a sore throat. My intention was to go straight to bed. At 10:30 I grabbed a cherry honey throat drop to try to ease the pain long enough to get to sleep.

You know how if you’re not careful you can swallow the whole thing? Wish you’d warned me.

It didn’t really go down. I can feel it in there, slowly melting away. Making me burp.

My throat’s still sore, but my esophagus has no pain whatsoever.

The Abs Diet

A doctor recommended I read The Abs Diet.’s not the kind of diet we’re used to, where you give up all fat, or eat only meat. To oversimplify, the book recommends a dozen power foods. You eat a bunch of those, spread throughout the day. You get lots of healthy food and you don’t have the appetite (or the time) to eat a bunch of junk food.

The book also recommends workouts: alternating days of weights and cardio. But unlike most workout plans, this book does not suggest you pump iron for two hours, then run 27 laps around the airport. You can complete this workout in half an hour or less.

I’d like to tell you that in the eight weeks since I started the abs diet, I’ve followed it to the letter and I’ve dropped 45 pounds. I haven’t. But I have put on some muscle, which is slowly burning off the fat.

And I’ve found an eating and exercise plan that I can live with for the long term.

Things I Wonder About

Why do cars keep getting bigger, but parking places keep getting smaller?

I’ve never been quite sure whether my Honda Accord qualifies as a Compact car. I always use the spots, and I rarely have trouble getting in and out. At least they warned me that the space was small. In most parking lots, they don’t give me that courtesy. I find out, on my own, that it’s a compact space when I return to find an SUV on either side of me. There’s usually just enough room to squeeze my body into my car. Unless I ate a big lunch.

Why do PEOPLE keep getting bigger, but clothes keep getting smaller?

I noticed years ago that clothing manufacturers don’t seem to pay attention to the clothing sizes that people actually wear. I’d look at jeans and find them in two sizes: 28X38 and 48X28. Where do all of those unbought jeans go?

Who cares what celebrities think?

This really hit me a few years ago when Sean Penn went to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein and tell us all that going to war would be the biggest mistake since New Coke. The mainstream media gave it 20 seconds, but the conservative talk shows had a field day with it. I wondered why they cared?

Why do any of us care about the opinions of Penn or Sarandon or the Dixie Chicks? Or Charleton Heston or Toby Keith? They’re entitled to their opinions, but should they have any more influence on the rest of us than, say, they guy who bags your groceries? Do we rely on Harry Reid or John McCain for movie and music reviews?

69% of History

Edith Brown may have lived in more houses in Denison, Texas than anyone else.

On a drive through the town, she was the ultimate tour guide. She could tell you every corner that used to have a store, who lived upstairs and where they moved when the store closed.

She could ride across Main Street and tell a story about almost every storefront.

I only learned recently that her father used to have a barber shop on Main, and, for a while, they lived right upstairs. Is it a wonder that she never had to grasp the concept of “commute time?”

She moved many times over her lifetime. Most of those moves kept her within a few blocks of where she was born. All of them kept her inside the Denison city limits.

Like most other residents, she worked and raised a family. She cooked and cleaned, tended her garden and went to church. She survived the depression and World War II.

For 91 years, she watched the town change around her. Main Street changed from a straight road to a “serpentine” design and back. Highway 75 moved from Armstrong Avenue to Austin Avenue, then bypassed most of town altogether. Downtown thrived, then declined when the mall was built, declined even more when Wal-Mart came, then gradually started a comeback.

Her kids grew up and had kids of their own. One day someone said it would be nice to get together to take a picture with five generations of the family: Edith, her daughter, her granddaughter, her great-grandson and her great-great grandson.

That picture made the paper one year. So did the picture of Edith riding a motorcycle on her 88th birthday.

Edith was never the mayor or a member of the city council. No one would call her a “prominent” citizen of Denison. She played her own role. The town has been around for 132 years, and she was there for 91 of them. Who else can say they’ve witnessed 69% of a town’s history?

Of course, it seemed perfectly natural to her. Why would she leave Denison when her family and her work were there? What else did she need?

Some of Edith’s children and grandchildren eventually moved away. I was one of them. At one point, I lived nearly 1,000 miles away. But four years ago, I came back to Texas, and I made it a point to spend as much time with her as I could.

If I hadn’t, I never would have heard about the barber shop or the ice house, and I never would have seen the spot where Uncle Charlie used to go fishing every morning, or the house where her grandfather swore he buried a jar full of coins but couldn’t find it when they moved. I never would have heard how she and my granddad had to pay a toll to cross the Carpenter’s Bluff bridge to get married. I heard some of the stories two or three times, but that was okay. I learned to see Denison through her eyes.

She could tell those stories until November 22, 2004. That’s the night she had her second major stroke. Unlike the first major stroke and another relatively minor one, this one left her unable to walk or even move most of her body. It left her unable to eat or laugh and unable to tell us the stories of her family and her town. And it left her like that for over a week, merely existing until the night before Thanksgiving.

No one will write a novel or a movie based on the life of Edith Brown. Her stories were simply the typical, real-life tales of a woman who lived 91 years in a small town in Texas. Every family has similar stories.

It’s what I call the American Dream.