These are strange times in television stations. At one end of buildings, sales departments are frantic over the loss of sports advertising. The Final Four cancellation alone is devastating to CBS affiliates, some with million-dollar-plus decreases. If there is a bright spot, it is the fact many regular advertisers recognize homes using televisions (HUTs) are up significantly. I’m told most of them are using this opportunity to reach a larger audience.
At the other end of stations, news departments are dealing with what, for many, is the largest story they have ever covered. Most news departments are energized, trying to make sense of a complex story while doing their best to avoid rumors and bad information.
In many ways, the COVID-19 has created one of local television’s finest hours. By their nature, cable news channels live off controversy, hype and “expert” analysis. When two experts disagree, so much the better. To survive, cable news must find ways to keep viewers tuned in. That means there must always be something fresh, even when that something is the latest rumor.
Local stations also want to retain audiences, but unlike national cable channels, they are directly accountable to the viewers they serve. Local accountability is the core reason viewers trust local stations more than national news media. In a story this big, no one gets everything right, but watching local newscast streams from stations around the country shows a marked effort to stick to facts and get the story right.
Unfortunately, there is also an underside to this story that must be acknowledged. The overwhelming force of social media is spreading bad information, rumors and outright falsehoods at a rate perhaps never seen before. Viewers are confused, many are angry, others simply overwhelmed. For many, local television stations have become their easy target.
Look at any station’s website and you will find viewer comments that are angry, even hateful. The same people who love to condemn others on Twitter are no doubt partly responsible, but that does not make it easier on the local journalists who are its victims. The question is, what should stations do?
What they should not do is respond in anger. Arguments gain nothing, especially against someone looking for a fight. Better to ignore those, but take into account the fact most comments come from people who are scared and confused. In this lies an opportunity.
This is a time for stations to take a moment and think critically about their coverage. Viewers want and need context. Simply reporting numbers is not enough. For instance, if people have died in your DMA, you have, of course, reported that. But what if no one has yet died? That is also worth reporting. The more context, the less panic.
Does your station do editorials? If so, talk about the ways in which you are handling coverage. If not, perhaps your general manager should consider a one-time opinion piece.
Many stations are running crawls with closures. One general manager told me he has forbidden crawls running in Wheel of Fortune and primetime programming because those are opportunities for viewers to escape. Your station might make the same, or a different decision. What is important is to think about everything.
Finally, remember that viewing levels right now are high. Most viewers are watching your newscasts because they trust you. This is an extraordinary opportunity to increase that trust, but you must shake off criticism and think deeply about everything you do.
Hank Price is a veteran media executive, educator and author of Leading Local Television (BPP, 2018) and co-author of Managing Today’s News Media: Audience First (Sage, 2015) a management textbook. He is a frequent speaker to television industry groups about the future of media. He currently serves as Director of Leadership Development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. During a 30-year career as a television general manager, Priced specialized in turnarounds, leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett. During this time, he became known for turning traditional businesses into multi-platform brands. Simultaneously, he spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, teaching in both the domestic and international executive education programs.