The Shrinking Landscape of Local TV News

The Nexstar Broadcast Group has steadily built its empire over the years, buying up television stations in large, medium and small markets alike. The group recently made an offer to purchase Media General, a group of television stations financed in part by Warren Buffet. The over 2 billion dollar offer was accepted and, depending upon FCC approval, will make Nexstar the single largest group of TV stations in America.

With 171 stations under its banner, Nexstar stations will be present in about 40% of all US TV markets.  Why a television group must be this large is beyond me. When a station is owned by a group this large, so many outside interests can end up entering the news operations, simply because of obligations to advertisers. I remember a friend of mine who worked for a Fox O&O told me a story about how investigative stories about businesses had to be approved from the headquarters in New York to be green-lighted, because they did not want negative stories airing about current (or even potential) advertisers. And the Fox O&Os are not a very large group of stations; imagine having to have pieces approved through a myriad of advertising relationships with 171 stations.

As far as ownership goes, the playing field is getting smaller and smaller as far as TV stations go. Large groups such as Tenga, Raycom, Tribune, and now Nexstar, are purchasing stations in most major and medium-sized markets. I predict the aforementioned groups will eventually own the majority of TV stations in the US by the end of this decade.


Remembering 9/11

I was a student at the University of Memphis on September 11, 2001. I was having quite a bad few days. School had began two weeks before and I was having a host of “first world problems”: I couldn’t get my mini-fridge, computer or TV delivered to campus until to the end of the week, a class I needed was full and I was waiting for someone to drop it so I could enroll in it and I’d yet to purchase my textbooks because my new debit card had not arrived in the mail yet and I could not get to the bank.
And the previous week, I had a falling out with my supervisor on my cushy work study job and I abruptly resigned, so in order to get my work study funds, I had to find another job.
That Tuesday morning, I was prepared to just skip class. I was going to take a nap, go to the library, visit the computer lab, or just do something to take my mind away from my “problems”. I was living in Robison Hall and my roommate was a former Army sergeant who was enrolled in the ROTC program, which was located in neighboring Hayden Hall. He had PT (physical training) at 6am and class afterwards, so normally after he cleared out in the mornings the dorm was all mine.
That Tuesday I awoke at 8:30a. I turned on the TV and the big news story was Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA. As I prepared to skip class that day, I had a flashback to my Intro to Philosophy class from the previous Thursday. Our professor told us that we were having an exam the next Thursday and Tuesday would be the day we went over the study guide. I could not blow this class off; by the time I realized this, it was 8:45a and class began at 9:05a, a whole 20 minutes to shower, get dressed and arrive to class. Robison Hall was a traditional dorm with community showers outside the rooms; I had to rush to the showers, bathe, race back to my room then run to Clement Hall.
I arrived to class about 5 minutes late and class began. I looked around and thought “Wow, a lot of people must have dropped”. About 30 minutes into class about 5 students came into class. One of the students said, “Hey, have y'all heard? An airplane hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York”. After that, another 3 or 4 people came into class. They said the lobby was full of students watching the news on TV. After a few minutes of discussion, the professor said we would discuss it later because we had to go over the material for the study guide. About an hour later, class let out.
In the haste of rushing to class, I’d left my wallet in my dorm room. I was going to go to the UC dining hall to get some food. As I traveled across campus, I noticed it was eerily quite; people were in small groups conversing quietly, and there were way fewer people outside as usual.

I got to my room and located my wallet and was about to make the short trek to the UC for some lunch. I noticed my caller ID was blinking. Hoping it was someone who called my roommate, I quickly check the number so I could leave (I was really hungry!). It was my mother. I wanted to leave and get my food, so I called Mum to see what she wanted.
“You didn’t hear what happened in New York?”, she asked. I was not able to put the pieces together at that moment so I turned on my TV. Then it hit me: this is what they were talking about in class. I watched and saw the live coverage unfolding. I sat there and watched in horror as one of the WTC towers fell. The news anchors repeated speculation that it was a terror attack.
After about 2 hours I decided to finally eat something. Afterwards, something told me to go over to Patterson Street to check in on the Catholic Center. I had a friend who worked and lived there. As I entered the Catholic Center, a group of students were praying. As I walked down Patterson, all the religious houses were filled with people: Barth House, church of Christ, Presbyterian, Hillel…these places became refuges on campus. 
I wish I’d had a video camera with me that day; I had so many touching encounters with people that day, most of whom I didn’t know. The thing I remember the most was how quiet it was: in Memphis, the sound of aircraft is commonplace, so much that it’s very noticeable when it’s not there. That, and the fact that everyone was in a somewhat somber mood gave the environment an ominous feel.
TV coverage was wall to wall. Every channel on TV had news coverage. Viacom stations like MTV and VH1 was showing local coverage from NYC. In fact, between that Tuesday and Sunday, not a single commercial was shown on TV. I can remember WREG block feeding the week’s episodes of “Jeopardy!” at 1am that fallowing Saturday.
It was very interesting having an Army sergeant as a roommate during that period; we had a lot of discussions about what was going on. I can remember the sentiment afterwards for everyone went from fear, sadness then anger. Extreme anger. I remember a Sikh student was harassed in front of the library on campus because he “looked like a terrorist”.
It sounds super cliche-ish, but things were never the same after that day.


Reality TV: Is This What TV Has Come To?

My sister and mother love watching what are called "reality" TV series. These are supposedly real life situations filmed for the purpose of entertainment. The majority of these shows profile either the most odd, absurd and extreme predicaments of human life or (in most cases) some washed-up celebrity who, for some reason, has a show on one of the many cable networks on weeknights.

I don't watch any of these shows, so there is often an odd silence when my sister mentions one of them to me. Not only have I never heard of any of them, but I draw a complete blank when she tells me who stars in them. When I'm at her house, she will show me some episodes she's recorded on her DVR. One of the newer ones that has premiered is called "Atlanta Plastic", which airs on Lifetime. The show follows a group of African-American plastic surgeons whose services are procured by people who have body issues. From the mundane to the outright strange, the doctors perform a myriad of procedures for people who essentially have money to waste, simply because they don't like the way they look. Between the oddballs and surgury footage, I didn't find it entertaining, to say the least.

Cable channels like TLC, VH-1, MTV, Lifetime, etc, have uilt entire primetime lineups around people who either don't need to be spotlighted, have no business on TV or are simply not doing anything important enough to merit any real attention. Shows like "Teen Mom", "19 Kids and Counting", "Basketball Wives", etc, make no sense to me. What's so intriguing about a man and woman who have 19 kids? If you watch MTV or VH-1 on a weeknight, you'll instantly become privy to a simply truth about a large portion of the American TV audience: people will watch anything on TV. ANYthing...

There's obvious staging in theres shows, at least the ones I've seen. Some of them aren't even "real". The series "Catfish" doesn't pass the smell test with me. How are these people duped by such sloppy con artists and impostors? The hosts of the show spend literally five minutes of Google and are able to "expose" these people; why couldn't the person being "catfished" have done this themselves? This show is really fishy.

I could go on, but I won't. And it seems this is the programming formula for ALL cable channels nowadays. Why hire writers when you can find 90s hip hop stars no one remembers, follow them around with cheap digital cameras, watch them act a fool and package it as five seasons of "Love and Hip Hop Atlanta"? Remember when VH-1 stood for "Video Hits One"? When it was an off-shoot of MTV for older audiences, that showed music videos and concerts? A&E showed arts and entertainment programming like operas and literary works; now, we must endure shows about people fighting over abandoned storage units and Duck Dynasty.

Besides the occasional Seinfeld rerun, news and movies, I don't even watch the majority of the channels I subscribe to. I watch more streaming stuff than actually broadcast programs. And it seems that each week, a new, pitiful reality series debuts with the same, invariable formula of oddballs, has-beens and freaks. It's enough to make you hate TV.


Grand Forks, North Dakota viewers object to TV news being outsourced to Fargo

WDAZ-TV, Grand Forks
Smaller communities value their news, whether it's source is the local newspaper or a small TV station. People in Grand Forks, North Dakota are not happy with a choice made by Forum Communications, owner of WDAZ-TV. Forum also owns sister station WDAY-TV, in larger Fargo, and has decided to cut WDAZ's 5pm localized newscast and its anchor, Terry Dullum. WDAZ is a satellite of the Fargo ABC affiliate and the weekday 5pm newscast is the sole newscast produced in Grand Forks; the other Grand Forks-specific newscasts are produced in Fargo. It's very like this is a monetary decision.

Terry Dullum
There has been quite a bit of outcry over this, to the point that competitors KXJB and KVLY are covering A petition has been started with a goal of 1000 signatures. While WDAZ is essentially a satellite of WDAY, thousands in the smaller city of Grand Forks became accustomed to having their own localized newscast with their own anchor. At the time of writing this, the petition is less than 100 signers shy of 1000.
it. Dullum is a fixture in the community and many unhappy viewers have used social media to vent frustrations over his dismissal.

This should send a loud message to TV news operations: viewers want to see news that's relevant to them and their community. That's how loyalty is built with viewers. The more local a newscast is, the more it's valued and the more it's watched.

Cheers, all.


The Idea of Going Car-Free in Memphis is Laughable and Sad at the Same Time

I have lived in Memphis the majority of my life. I was born here and I know this city very well. While this is the only city I would truly ever want to call home, I have what I feel is a legitimate grievance: we do not live in a city designed (or modified) to effectively or realistically travel about without the aid of a personal automobile.

Courtesy: The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has public transit. Before I began driving, I used Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) extensively. Once you learn how to use it, that is. When I needed the aid of public transportation, I was one of the thousands of people who saw MATA buses and trollies running up and down city streets, wondering just how to use them and where, exactly, they where going. But once I learned the system, schedules, etc, it was a pleasant experience, for the most part.

But riding the bus in Memphis can be a challenge. In some case, it takes intricate, almost reconnaissance-like planning and scoping to get from where you are to where you want to go. The way buses are scheduled, if you are traveling to a transfer point and the bus you are one arrives late, you plans either change on the fly or you wait it out until the next bus rolls along. That, along with the fact that many areas of the metro area are not widely served (namely the surrounding affluent suburban areas and the far eastern portion of Shelby County) does not make relying upon MATA a realistic possibility.

Even with recent efforts to integrate bike lanes throughout the city, Memphis can be highly frustrating to maneuverable with a car. Drivers in this city are simply not mindful of anything on the street that's not a car. It's largely a fantasy to think one can ride a bike from Whitehaven to Midtown without almost getting killed by careless drivers or encountering roadways and thoroughfares not designed with neither pedestrians nor bikers in mind.

While noble and bold in conception, the aspect of ditching your car for a month in the name of reducing auto emissions and helping the environment is laughable. For now, anyway.

For those not from Memphis, you must understand that there is a stigma attached to not owning a car in this city. It doesn't matter if you're driving a $500 raggedy tax refund used jalopy, you're better than those people who have to ride the bus. That alone will keep people away from MATA. Or walking. Or riding a bike.

Courtesy: Memphis Daily News
Like I stated before, when I first used the bus, I had no idea how it worked and I wasn't alone. If MATA would make the process less of a mystery (perhaps designating an advertising budget like they did in the 70s and 80s?), I think ridership would go up. Also, an expansion of routes (in area and frequency) would making riding buses and trollies more attractive.

If bike routes and lanes expanded, this would help. But the harsh truth is that Memphis drivers are not used to sharing the road with bikers. Drivers often use bike lanes like shoulder, with no regard for the bike lanes' intended use.

Going car-free is idealist, nothing more. A good idea, but still, just an idea, really.

More info about Memphis' 30 Day Car Free Challenge can be found here.

Cheers, all.


Can drones replace news helicopters?

After watching a very interesting piece about drones on 60 Minutes, I sent out this tweet:

While my focus was on smaller television markets with limited resources, my interest has shifted a bit in light of the tragic events at Seattle ABC affiliate KOMO. Chopper pilot Gary Fitzner and photographer Bill Strothman were killed in a crash while leaving the facility where the station's helicopter was stored, mere yards from the city's iconic Space Needle.

So I've been thinking: could drones be used as an economical tool for gathering news and make for a safer alternative? I envision these tiny, airborne devices being utilized by television stations to get aerial footage for breaking news, even for stations in larger markets who cannot (or will not) fork over millions of dollars to purchase or lease a chopper or pay for its expensive fuel. Plus, helicopters must be stored in specific places; it's not like a car that can be parked in the driveway after breaking news coverage is over.

With 5G bandwidth becoming common across America, drones could also be used anywhere near a 4G/5G tower, eliminating the need to tune into a signal on what can often be an unreliable microwave spectrum. This would also allow multiple drones to operate simultaneously within the same general area.

My vision of initial operation goes like this: a large fire has broken out in a residential area during a wildfire. Crews cannot get to the fire due to safety issues. A news crew drives as close to the fire as safely allowed. The drone is deployed. With someone trained to remotely operate the drone as a crew member guiding it along, the cellular spectrum can be used to transmit a live HD grade signal back to the station. The drone costs a fraction of a helicopter, so if it's damaged, it's no big deal, especially in situations where lives are in the balance. Plus, it's less intrusive than a helicopter, therefore, it can access more areas without jeopardizing safety.

The use of drones could also level the playing field in TV news, making exclusive claims to owning helicopters a thing of the past. As I stated previously, choppers use a lot of fuel. And it ain't cheap.

But we;re years away from this. Regulations must be put into place. I can imagine drones would be governed the same way aircraft is today.

So, will drones replace news helicopters? Not anytime soon. Just as the internet has not replaced TV news but has influenced it to change, drones will add another alternative and dimension to the tools television stations will have at their disposal to provide quality news coverage.

Cheers, all.


The Value of Local Television in Smaller Markets

Something crazy is on the verge of happening in southern New Jersey. When I heard about this, I almost thought it was a joke. But what I'm about to explain today is happening for real. And I must say, it's absurd.

WMGM, an NBC affiliate that operates out of Atlantic City, NJ, has been sold. That, in itself, isn't news: TV stations are put up for sale all the time. What makes channel 40's sale unique is this: the company that wants to buy the station, LocusPoint Networks, isn't in the broadcasting business. They acquire frequency spectrum space and sell it to other companies that, in turn, use it for cell phones, private communications networks, etc. The sale is still pending approval from the FCC; if it goes through, WMGM will cease operations. This will leave the entire South Jersey region without a local television station.

If you're familiar with the area, you know that Atlantic City is part of the Philadelphia market. WMGM operates under a unique situation: the area can receive a Grade A signal from WCAU, channel 10, the NBC station in Philly. It's considered a Philly market station, but doesn't have a specific market distinction. Yet, since there are no other NBC stations in New Jersey (the other portion if New Jersey is part of the NYC market), channel 40 is allowed to co-exist with WCAU. WMGM serves an area not normally covered by Philly stations, so it is essentially a split Nielsen market, meaning a portion of the larger market is treated like its own small market.

Philadelphia is the nation's 4th largest market; it's huge. While each station delivers a quality news product, the smaller communities further out from Philly, like Wildwood/Atlantic City, often times get left out of daily news coverage. This is where small market TV stations are valuable. They pick up the slack when the larger stations are focused on what's happening in the areas closer to the larger cities. Smaller market stations serve a unique and important role for folks living in more rural/outlying areas.

In February 2008, I was working as an anchor and reporter for the ABC in Jackson, TN. Jackson is an official DMA and receives most non-ABC programming from Memphis, 80 miles southeast. A string of deadly tornadoes swept through the region. WBBJ provided non-stop coverage to the people of West Tennessee. I shot footage that evening and upon arriving back to the station, answered phones for nearly six hours with my co-workers, giving information, phone numbers, damage reports, etc, to people directly affected by the storms. Nielsen numbers suggested more people in the market watched us than the Memphis stations. That single even proved to me the value of small market TV and the lifeline it provides to the people it aims to serve, areas that aren't served unless something big happens there.

And that's why the pending sale of WMGM upsets me a bit. You may be thinking the Philadelphia stations will cover the news in Atlantic City. Unless something huge happens there on a regular basis, don't expect that to happen. Smaller stations cover the city hall meetings, burglaries, crimes and other events larger stations simply do not consider "news". Just as people in and around Philly expect to see and hear what happened in their neck of the woods, the same holds true for people in smaller communities.

While channel 40 isn't technically in a small market, it serves the same purpose; losing a TV station in exchange for more 4G cellular service seems to be a terrible trade off.

Supporters of keeping WMGM up and running have set up this web site.

Cheers, all.


MS Gulfcoast station WXXV launches local newscasts

Since the early 60's, the only source of local TV news for residents in South Mississippi has been Raycom's WLOX. That changes today, as NBC/FOX affiliate WXXV launches its news department.

This isn't the first time WXXV has produced local news. Back in the late 1990s, Fox 25 News at Nine popped up to offer another choice for news in the Gulfcoast. Even though the newscast aired an hour before WLOX's newscast, it still failed.

Back in 2012, WXXV added NBC as their .2 sub-channel. NBC requires all affiliates to produce news, so I assume this is why this day has come. Still, it doesn't hurt to have more than one choice for any product, including TV news

I worked in a one station market and I must say, I sort of regret it. Why? The only other local news outlet we competed with was the newspaper. It would have been nice to go head-to-head with another station in the market. WLOX has been the lone TV news operation for half a century. Biloxi-Gulfport is the 160th Nielsen television market, with about 130,000 TV households (about 400,000 people). It's a smaller market, and although the market has access to New Orleans through cable penetration, people in those areas tend to be left out as far as local news is concerned. Local TV tends to be more valued in small markets. Even though it means competition, I'm sure the folks at WLOX are excited about News 25.

The first local newscast is slated for 5:30pm on their .2 NBC sub-channel, pushing NBC Nightly News to 6pm on tape delay, followed later by a 10pm newscast. A 9pm newscast will air on the Fox channel.

I'm anxious to see WXXV's news product. I visited their website and saw a Clip Syndicate box, which means they'll be posting video soon.

I wish News 25 the best of luck. As long as they produce quality, earnest news content, they'll stay afloat. Smaller markets tend to appreciate it more.

Cheers, all.


Aereo: Innovation or theft?

After a recent collective legal effort by America's over-the-air (OTA) broadcast networks, the 2nd Circuit US Court of Appeals in New York has upheld an earlier ruling by a lower court, affirming that Aereo is not infringing any copyrights by streaming TV signals online.

This a setback in what the networks see as an effort to protect their main products, their programming. However, Newscorp, the company that owns and operates 17 Fox and 10 MyTVNetwork stations across the US, has suggested a drastic solution to Aereo: pulling Fox programming from the airwaves altogether.

Speaking of the court's ruling at the annual National Association of Broadcasters gathering in Las Vegas, Newscorp COO Chase Carey said, "This is not an ideal path we look to pursue, but we can't sit idly by and let an entity steal our signal." He went on to say, "If we can't do a fair deal, we could take the whole network to a subscription model."

A large number of Americans subscribe to some kind of pay television service, whether it be satellite, cable or a fiber optic service provider like FiOS or UVerse. In order to provide these signals to their customers, television service providers must pay for the privilege to do so in the form of re-transmission fees. Makes sense, right? A cable provider sells access to a station and makes money, so should the station not be compensated? Local stations are used as a selling point for subscription TV services, so the common logic is that stations should share in those profits.

But many Americans still rely upon an antenna to watch television. Millions of Americans don't pay for television because they either can't afford it or simply choose not to. I bring this up because it helps explain how local TV makes the bulk of its money: through the sell of advertising.

In advertising, the easier access one has to an entity that distributes ads ensures that those ads reach the most people. It's a model almost every free weekly metropolitan newspaper understands: if I give away my newspaper, more people will be inclined to pick up a copy. Therefore, my advertisers have better and wider access to readers.

This model works with TV. If I can't or won't pay for TV, I know I can always take out the old rabbit ears and pull in the evening news or American Idol for free. Satellite or none, if I want to watch Criminal Minds or Scandal, it's there. And so are the ads that air with the programs.

Back to Fox. I'm calling Mr. Carey's bluff on this one; Fox pulling programming from the airwaves makes as much sense as shooting yourself in the foot. I do not see this happening. But if it did happen, where would that leave Fox as a terrestrial broadcast entity? Would Fox create another cable service like FX and move its primetime network programming there, and maintain its broadcast stations according to a different programming model? Or would the Newscorp stations simply disappear from the airwaves and be offered only to cable and satellite subscribers?

With the exception of WOGX in north central Florida, all Fox owned stations produce local news. Local news ratings are used by stations to set ad rates for local and regional advertisers. If Fox goes pay TV, that ad model would change completely, because the large portion of non-pay TV household would most likely not be willing to start paying for TV because of the loss of one local station. That's means all programming, including news and everything else, loses a chunk of its audience. Free TV means free access to advertising.

But like I said, I'm not convinced any situation like this will become a reality.

But I must touch on Aereo. Aereo claims that the reason no copyright infringement occurs is because they have thousands of "mini-antennas" that provide the signal that is streamed to each individual subscriber. The service offers all sorts of fancy bells and whistles such as time shifting and DVR space, but I must ask this: how does one take a signal from over-the-air and initially resell it to someone? The network programming is the draw here; folks aren't paying to see reruns of "My Little Pony" or Mexican soccer. The mere existence of Aereo proves the worth of local network affiliates.

Why does Aereo have the right to charge people for something that they didn't pay for and that's copyrighted? What's wrong with the networks restricting the way their programming is distributed? If the networks want local affiliates to broadcast their signal over-the-air, fine. If the affiliates want to make deals with cable companies over re-transition, fine. Isn't it only fair that Aereo pay for the right to redistribute network/affiliate programming? When will Aereo reach out to stations and work out some kind of deal? That way, everyone gets paid and everyone is happy.


Car theft dashed because would-be thieves were too dumb to drive stick shift

Maybe if more people drove vehicles with manual transmissions, less of them would get stolen.


This would almost be funny if not for the seriousness of the situation. Randolph Beane was waiting outside of an Orlando hospital to pick his wife up from work in his Corvette. He was later approached by his three would-be carjackers.

"Beene, 51, said one of the thieves pointed a gun at him while asking how to use the car. 'They apparently couldn't start it. I had to tell him four different times to push in the clutch, because it's a standard transmission.'"

Complete story from WOFL-TV (Fox) in Orlando

Cheers, all.