We Need a Jon Stewart in Every Town

Posted on May 16, 2010 
Filed Under Media | 1 Comment

Local television broadcasters are increasingly challenged by the disruptive impact of new technologies. The concept of families gathering around the television to watch the 6 o’clock news exists only as a nostalgic memory in the age of having instant access to news stories and video clips on our PCs and mobile devices.

  The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual media report shows a steady decline in local news ratings in all day-parts.  The 2009 results revealed that early evening newscasts dropped 1.7%, late was down 6.4% and morning news was down 5.5%. It’s a troubling trend for local broadcasters, which has been evident for some time.

  When the project’s researchers asked Americans to name the journalists they most admired, comedian Jon Stewart ranked number four. That may be a disturbing fact for journalism’s purest but perhaps it’s an indicator of a overall cultural shift in the way we now choose to experience the news.

  Comedy is playing a more significant role in the political process. During the 2008 primary, all of the major candidates appeared on Saturday Night Live. The program was clearly instrumental to the rise of Sarah Palin’s public profile. And while they are often accused of being overly liberal, SNL took a jab at the mainstream media for its pampering of Barack Obama during the presidential debates.

  These facts make many in the journalism profession shake their heads in disgust. However, I’m suggesting we should be inspired by these trends rather than dismayed. Specifically, local broadcasters ought to be actively engaged in finding their own Jon Stewart-type personalities in their communities. I’m not suggesting that newscasts change their entire formats to become comedy shows. However, a lighthearted segment or two that takes a satirical look at local headlines would liven up an otherwise predictable and failing format. This is particularly true if local news has any hope of attracting the younger demographic of viewers who show little interests in their broadcasts.

  Our other mainstream media institutions also stand to benefit by not taking themselves so seriously.  Newspapers in search of readers have perhaps forgotten that many of their loyalist fans turn directly to the comics section. Again, I’m not suggesting that news would by and large be better presented as entertainment. Rather, we should be mindful that as journalists, first and foremost, we are storytellers and that humor can be a highly effective tool in telling stories with great substance.

  Let us not forget the legacy of newspaper humorists like Art Buchwald. Of course, his level of talent is somewhat rare. Perhaps that’s because a comedic sense is not a skill this profession openly seeks to cultivate?

  Network news is another venue where there is a highly predictable “one-note” approach to telling stories.  Andy Rooney’s contributions to “60 Minutes” serve to balance the hard-hitting journalism that rounds out the rest of the hour. However, to attract younger viewers networks will have to experiment with fresher approaches. 

  MSNBC is experiencing ratings success with “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” which strikes a healthy balance in its presentation of the day’s events. User-friendly brevity, pithy writing and humor are complemented by interviews with intelligent guests who provide context for the stories.

  The reality is that much of the news has become so complicated and daunting that it often requires a dose of humor to help us digest it. Jay Leno and David Letterman are arguably as relevant as their network’s news anchors, in terms of their impact on political discourse. The late night hosts’ jibs and jabs are what we share with one another the morning after. Many have come to depend on Letterman’s top ten as much as what is on page one.

  In the case of Jon Stewart, his secret weapon is his refreshing and authentic honesty. He’s willing to call it like he sees it, rather than offer another homogenized account of the news. There are no sacred cows on the “Daily Show.”  He even jabbed tech icon Steve Jobs recently, over Apple’s strong-armed response to Gizmodo.com’s public dissection of the forthcoming G4 iPhone.  That’s the essence of Stewart’s appeal; his unpredictable ability to tackle the truth, even when it may involve taking on a public figure or product he admires.  

  Local broadcasters need to take note. It’s not that viewers lack interest in local news, it’s that they’ve grown tired of the conventions that are so overly used in its presentation. Give us at least a portion of the news in a manner that is distinctive, challenges the status quo and makes us think.

Authors of Our Own Demise

Posted on March 2, 2009 
Filed Under General, Media | 1 Comment

The headlines continue to report more doom and gloom for the media business.  Newspapers in particular suffered tremendous losses this past week with the shutdown of Denver’s 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer joined a growing list of publications making a mad dash for bankruptcy protection.

Meanwhile, it appears that the broadcast business is also on life support.  MediaPost’s Diane Mermigas reports that Barclays Capital and J.P. Morgan nearly doubled their forecast decline in overall TV station local and national spot revenues to a negative –15.5% for 2009, warning it could go lower. Other analysts predict that profits at CBS will decline 65% to 70% as revenues fall 35% to 40% this year.

No matter how you spin it the media business is at a critical point its own historical narrative – and is suffering the added insult of having to write its own obituary. But perhaps not… 

Of course news organizations have a moral obligation to report the facts to the public. However, I would assert that they also have an obligation to themselves — to uncover numerous other stories of success that are occurring throughout the media business. 

We all know that headlines have the ability to drive a story, just as well as they report it.  But sharp editorial staffs do more than just report grim facts.  They compel their reporters to dig deeper — to provide balance and context.  Otherwise, they run the risk leaving the public in a state of perpetual hopelessness.  The psychological impact of nonstop of barrage bad news bears a heavy toll. Readers, advertisers and even news professionals can become resigned and start to question why they even bother.

What makes this all the more challenging is understanding that while news organizations are earnest in their efforts to provide well-rounded coverage of others, they are not so comfortable seeking balance when covering their own industry.  Yes, there are legitimate fears about being perceived as self-serving or breaching the public’s trust. But editors must begin to challenge these fears or risk no longer having a platform to explore them.

Newspapers and television, as we’ve known them, may be struggling to survive, but good journalism and popular entertainment will always have a healthy-sized audience. Jeff Jarvis, the noted columnist and media arts professor, continues to chronicle stories of bold new journalism initiatives like ProPublica and Daylife, which are aggressively reinventing the news business. 

Those of us who have spent much of our time in traditional media bear much of the blame for this current crisis. We’ve been late to arrive at the scene of our own story – and hardheaded about acknowledging the facts. 

There is much to learn from similar situations throughout business history. I recall learning in grade school about how the railroad barons lost their massive fortunes.  They were well-positioned to invest in the then fledgling airline industry but chose to ignore signs of its imminent growth. Their grandest mistake was losing sight of the fact that they weren’t in the railroad business; they were really in the transportation business. Henry Ford lost dominance of the auto industry to GM by refusing to offer consumers more than just the standard black Model T.

There have been just as many stories of triumphant comebacks. Having all but missed the PC revolution of the 1990’s, IBM reportedly had just 100 days of remaining cash reserves before Lou Gerstner turned them around. Apple was written off around the same time, until Steve Jobs regained the reigns and led an upward spiral of growth and innovation that still makes his rivals dizzy.

It’s not too late for the media business, if we are willing to meet these mighty challenges with bold and immediate action. With the advent of more mobile devices like Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle, newspapers are waking up to the fact that future fortunes will be found online. They’ll recover sooner by being willing to embrace and become fluent in video. People want to see and experience the world in full-motion and if it is presented in compelling ways readers and advertisers will be willing to pay for it.

CBS Can’t Die

Posted on January 7, 2009 
Filed Under General | Leave a Comment

I was blindsided when I read that the future of CBS network might be in jeopardy.  Reports surfaced in mid-December that Viacom Chair Sumner Redstone could be forced to sell his controlling interest to pay off massive debts. Then MediaPost analyst Diane Mermigas listed the network among her predicted casualties for 2009. I had to read it twice to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  Surely, this couldn’t be true.

Other analysts predicted there would be plenty of interest in Viacom’s attractive portfolio of cable assets that includes MTV and Nickelodeon. But, “few would want CBS, even at bargain prices.”  Was the sky falling? First the 160 year-old Tribune Company files for bankruptcy protection. Now, nobody would want CBS?

A younger generation may be immune to matters of corporate consolidations and liquidations that seem to take place on a weekly basis. After all, they’re not watching CBS anyway.  But for “old media” diehards like me, this is a major upset.

CBS was the “Tiffany Network” — the house of Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite.  They wrote the rules of broadcast journalism that informed and inspired several generations.  This was the network that pioneered with such series as “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H,” and before them “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy.”  Of course they also gave us “The Dukes of Hazard,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but it all added to a memorable mix of pop culture entertainment.

I partially jest in suggesting that if given the choice between bailing out the American auto industry vs. CBS, I’d pick CBS.  Entertainment is arguably America’s most significant export.  Plus, if you factor in the music legacy left by CBS Records it is something to consider. The “hearts and minds” of our former enemies have been won because they seek to emulate our culture, which they witness through our entertainment.

What many may miss is that the legacy media brands were built by people that shared a unique sense of purpose and passion about their work because of the high level of responsibility that came with it. As one of just two or three networks delivering the news and high quality entertainment the stakes were always extremely high.

That’s not meant to diminish the hard work and passion that goes into creating content for cable and other newer platforms. That’s a world I know equally well.  However, “back in the day,” working for one of the “big three” was a true sign of accomplishment.

While in my twenties, I was fortunate to be hired by broadcast veteran Bob Shanks to serve as the west coast producer/director for the CBS Morning Program, featuring Mariette Hartley.  It was among the many short-lived and failed attempts to compete with NBC’s stalwart “Today” show. 

I can recall the day I directed my first live Los Angeles feed into the coast-to-coast broadcast. This was from the same control room and studio where Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher had originated.  Could this really be happening to me? That session and many more went off without a hitch — but it was a defining moment in my career.

Years earlier, right out of college, I was hired to join the team that launched CNN. Visionary Ted Turner had this crazy notion that people would want to watch 24 hours of non-stop news. The naysayers questioned whether there was enough going on in given day to warrant such a venture?  Today we have three news networks and many still pose that same question.

It didn’t help that we were launching an entire network with a budget that was a fraction of what CBS was spending on its half-hour evening news.  Often brash and rarely predictable, Ted Turner made an unsuccessful bid to acquire CBS in the mid-1980’s.  Say what you will about Ted, but he always saw beyond conventional wisdom and was often right.

Many of the old guard at CBS will admit to being envious of CNN and still regret that they were unable to convince their management at the time to make the bold move that Ted did in launching the network. CBS as the brand behind “America’s most trusted news network,” would have made perfect sense.

But wait. Perhaps it’s not too late to ponder the possibilities. Time-Warner, now owner of CNN, is often mentioned as a likely suitor for the troubled CBS assets. Ted Turner was Time Warner’s Vice-Chairman and biggest stockholder until he stepped down in 2006.  He’s a senior statesman in the media business at this point in his career. But perhaps Ted has one more visionary move to orchestrate: the brokering of a deal that would preserve the legacy of CBS News by merging it into the Time-Warner/CNN family. Plus, TBS, TNT and the other Turner networks would certainly benefit from having the CBS entertainment library.



Patterns of Ineffectiveness

Posted on July 21, 2008 
Filed Under Branding You | 2 Comments

We all have them. . . Patterns of behavior that impair our ability to accomplish what we say we most want. Much has been written about the many outside forces that can stand in our way of getting ahead in life. Certainly, there are the old stalwarts: economic trends, not having the right connections, the “glass ceiling,” ageism and a long list of other “isms.”

But, what about those forces that are closer to home? Self-sabotaging behavior patterns we tend to overlook?

Many of us engage in regular practices that are simply time wasters. If your workdays often leave you feeling unfulfilled, it could mean it’s time to reassess your workflow system. Is the length of your “to do” list realistic or overwhelming? Do you over-promise in ways that cause you to often fall short? How organized are you? Have you streamlined your paper flow or do you often waste time searching for lost items? Are you a “Lone Ranger” or have you enlisted a support team?

I’ve met and coached many successful business people that confess to being aware that they have some of these common patterns of ineffectiveness. They also acknowledge that they’d be a third to twice as effective if they’d commit to altering them, and yet they don’t. Why?

It’s not easy for most people to hear but our behaviors tie into our core beliefs about trust and self-worth. The micro-manager can’t bring him or herself to delegate because of a lack of trust that the job will get done without their strict oversight. This can be a legitimate concern if you’re launching a new initiative, but it can be a nonsensical one when you’re two years into responsibilities that have become routine.

It takes a high level of self-esteem to build a team that may in many ways be more experienced, or smarter, than yourself. However, in truth, it is the only way to really grow. Unless you’re in start-up mode, you should be able to take vacations with confidence.

Have a sit-down with your team and ask for honest feedback about what works and doesn’t work about your management style. Commit to logging all of your workday activities for a week in fifteen-minute increments. Notice patterns that surface that may not be serving you. Do you allow constant interruptions? Or do you set aside focus time – just for yourself? Once you identify the practices that don’t work it’s time to establish and commit to new ones that do work. You’ll discover that the internal forces you can alter have much more of an impact that the external forces you can’t.

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