Eric May – Media Consultant
  

 

 

 

The biggest problem broadcasters face today is not...

(contrary to the opinion of many in the broadcasting business) the rise of the internet, dwindling audience share, the constant threat to revenues or the decline of the print sector and “quality journalism.” 

Declining audience share has as much to do with what broadcasters are not doing as it does with changing technologies and audience tastes and habits.

Technology has made a big difference in how news organizations collect and report the news, but not that much of a difference in how people consume those television (and radio) newscasts.

 

It’s worth remembering that online and broadcast are significantly, substantially different mediums. Audiences use them differently, and have very different expecations of what constitutes “quality” content online and on the air.

 

One measure of this is to compare the relative audience share of both mediums. Since broadcasters finally began investing in an online news presence and seeing audience share grow online, that growth has not come at the expense of the broadcast platforms. Indeed, online news (so far) hasn’t drawn significant audience share away from traditional broadcast news. The audience likes both, they use both for different reasons.

 

There will always be a market for what broadcasters do, no matter if it comes out of a television set or a PC, or people find it by clicking a remote control or a URL.

For broadcasters, the biggest challenge today is expressing their value to their audience and to their stakeholders. It’s not an easy thing to do in institutions where “what I have is what you want” defined the mission since the inception. 

It’s even worse in countries where there has always been a strong “state” presence in news coverage, which more than anything else drove audience away from broadcasters to the internet, when it became available.

But recognize that so far the internet has been a spectacularly poor content provider. It’s clear the big internet sites don’t know how to do it very well, and depend on the more traditional news sources to give them the content that people will come to. 

The visual language of the internet is still being discovered, and new forms of storytelling will certainly emerge to match the unique “lean-in” characteristics of the internet audience.  

But for now, the internet is totally dependent on broadcasters (and the print media). It’s time we recognize that rather than competing for audience, it is a symbiotic relationship: both need each other, and offer fundamentally different services to serve different audiences (and this by definition means that the idea of one staff doing everything is the wrong approach for success... the skills, and the storytelling are fundamentally different for the two different mediums).

If broadcasters decline what will the internet do? Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, remarked famously that if the “mainstream media” goes under the internet will become a “cesspool” of information. Internet providers and aggregators will collapse without material from mainstream broadcasters. 

The paradox is that the internet, which seems to be challenging the primacy of the traditional media, has a vested interest the “mainstream media” not only surviving. but thriving.

If, without broadcasters, the internet is a “cesspool”, what does that say about where news and information is today? Audiences are confused, and at the same time they have more options than ever. More than ever, people are looking for the truth, and they are looking for quality.

Broadcasters are the only institutions capable of providing that in today’s environment.  And what is quality?

•    Coverage of all sides of the issue
•    Coverage of diverse issues
•    Proving relevance: connecting complex issues to real life experiences
•    Effectively challenging the government and powerful interests
•    Representing the interests of the public
•    Breaking stereotypes
•    Compelling to watch: clear, understandable, and human

In short, it is programming in the public interest that also happens to interest the public. That's where our public service broadcasters need to be stronger. The old attitude of “what I have is what you want” is dead.

Broadcasters can no longer automatically assume that people will come to them, although that's what the traditions of the institutions tell tell them, and what they would like to think deep in their hearts. Today, news organizations have to prove relevance to audiences. They can do that in several ways:

•    Use audience research to target audiences, and also to recognize how different audiences are than the people making the programs

•    Prove relevance: set a news agenda that is more in line with what people really care about... not reflexively what news people think people care about 

•    Straight and serious: cover issues of importance to the audience in a serious manner

•    Give the audience some of what it wants, but mostly what it needs: recognize there is a balance between want and need, which defines editorial identity

•    Don't be shy about setting the agenda. Think for yourself, based on what you think our audience needs to know

Tom Brokaw of NBC News called the Digital Revolution a “big bang”, and went on to describe that all these little information planets are out there now, and the audience is looking for a safe place to land, a place where they can get information they can trust, that also happens to be produced well. That is still the the primary role of broadcasters.

The audience needs to know that when they want information that is straight and balanced, and stories which are told well, Most broadcasters can be trusted for that… as opposed to online content which is (so far) mostly partisan, biased, plain wrong, or simply sloppy and amateurish. 

Unlike commercial stations, the public has a special expectation of “public service broadcasters (PSBs).” PSBs are expected to to hold to certain standards, and appeal to the widest possible audience, reflecting and giving voice to the entire society, and viewing audience,  if they are to enjoy the tremendous privilege and market advantage of license fees.

Commercial broadcasters scream because they don’t have the money that public service broadcasters do, and they may be right. PSBs are getting a subsidy, because they have a mandate to operate in the interest of the public.

License fees, far from guaranteeing independence, shackle PSBs to politicians and the whims of elected officials. But the license fee also gives PSBs freedom. It is only public service broadcasters who can really challenge the government and powerful interests, free of commercial (and political) pressure. It is only PSBs who can fund investigative stories, and use the advances in technology to drive storytelling forward. 

And only PSBs have a unique cultural role in their societies, based on tradition, and the embracing of the latest technologies first.

 

For traditional news organizations, the challenge in the “internet age” comes down to one thing: communicating what they do, why they do it that way and why that is valuable.

 

Today, the most critical challenge broadcasters face is the need to do a much better job of explaining their value to their audience and their stakeholders, in terms both can understand.