Eric May – Media Consultant




The chronic clicker problem

There’s a lot on television that’s supposed to be news, but really isn’t. It’s an ever changing, never-boring world of breathless presentation, morphing graphics, special effects and music, all branded as news. But where’s the story? As TV writer Tom Shales says, these days, style is content.

There’s nothing wrong with good production values. They are not only essential to maintaining and building an audience. At the very least good production values show you live in the same world as your audience, and yes, you appreciate the appeal of television, too. 

The good news is strong production values are recognized as an important standard in TV News today. If you’re doing your job right, your production values are at least as good as everyone else’s and hopefully better. But using them only means you won’t lose viewers. It’s not going to help you win any.

After years of fighting for the best possible equipment, today every station has basically the same technology to work with. And it turns out everybody has arrived at basically the same production solutions. The result is that newscasts and news channels are now practically indistinguishable from each other.

Take away branding elements like logos and sets and graphics packages and the viewers would have a tough time telling newscasts apart. It’s already hard enough. The promotion campaigns are as interchangeable as the production values.

No wonder news has ratings problems. There’s no originality. And as audience levels fall, news producers are desperately devising new sets, graphics packages, and format changes to keep viewers interested. It’s not working very well.

While good production values are essential, they won’t keep viewers watching and coming back. Viewers have more choices than ever. They know cheapness and sameness when they see it.

And if they don’t like what they see, there’s that threatening thumb hovering over the remote, perpetually ready to find something better, instantly. The viewers probably don’t think much about it. And you’ve lost them.

Chronic clicking is especially true of the viewers in the most demographically desirable groups– the young, the better educated, those with more disposable income.

These are the viewers who have never known a time without CDs, Star Wars, and TV’s with remote control. And they can’t remember a time when good production values weren’t a part of their television newscasts.

Consider that viewers are looking for something else. Maybe they have actually tuned in to see what’s happening in their city and in the world. Maybe the viewers are willing to be more engaged than we think. Maybe they are actually tuning in to see “the news.”

After all, news offers something different than anything else on television. The news is unique among the strictly commercial, anything goes, landscape we see on almost every channel today.

It’s about real life and real people, usually their problems and tragedies but occasionally their triumphs as well. It’s about storytelling, and telling stories that people care about and are compelling to watch.

A top news producer has to be fluent in current production values. But no matter how fluent you are, quite a few do it better.

So try differentiating your news broadcast with the stories you tell and how you tell them. Stories have resonance for your audience. Your viewers like good stories, told well. People like stories about people.

Instead of changing the presentation once again, try good storytelling. It just might make the chronic clicker give that thumb a rest.