At a party last weekend, I met a young lawyer who works as a public defender in metro Atlanta. Politely, she asked if I had an occupation. I gave her the shorthand: “Local TV news guy.” (She was dressed as a zombie; I was dressed as the Ghost of Americana. You kinda had to be there…)
“Oh, like you’re on TV or something?” Yeah, something like that.
“I don’t think I’ve ever watched the local news in Atlanta.”
I’m gonna stick my neck out — again — and say with certainty that everybody working in Atlanta TV news has had this conversation with numbing regularity. In my case, the “I don’t watch TV news” conversations far exceed the frequency of the opposite “omigosh I watch Brenda / Monica / Amanda / Stephany every night!” conversations.
The “I don’t watch local news” conversations typically include a short critique of what they see as a nightly drumbeat of murder and mayhem. There’s a bit of an elitist quality to the critiques. The conversant is frequently educated and somewhat sophisticated. Like the lawyer at the party, these folks are well-informed. But they sidestep the local stories that aren’t relevant to them, and ignore the broadcasts that traffic in them.
Stories, such as — oh, say — the coverage of the guy who caused the grisly traffic accident on the Stone Mountain Freeway, who turned himself in and uttered an apology at the jail. In a post on this site last week, I suggested that it would be reasonable for local TV to find something else to cover instead of that story.
This caused a bit of an uproar in my little corner of the blogosphere, particularly among people who apparently work in local TV news.
Based on the numerous comments that were very critical of that post, I would conclude that local TV news has almost zero chance of convincing that lawyer that their product is worth sampling.
The sad thing is this: Atlanta TV news actually produces plenty of quality material. But because local newscasts devote so many resources — and so much A-block time — to the mayhem (and the follow-ups to mayhem), many desirable viewers choose not to wade through that stuff in the hope that something worthwhile will follow.
The audience for local TV news is shrinking. Do we try to expand it? Do we try to find a niche that goes outside the murder-and-mayhem formula? Or do we assume that the remaining audience watches for the tried-and-true formula, and climb all over each other to fight for the bleary eyeballs who haven’t abandoned us yet?
Thankfully, I lack the smarts, talent and chutzpah it takes to run a major market TV newsroom. Because if I did, I think I’d be contorting myself to try to produce a product that would get the young zombie lawyer to watch — and re-thinking the stuff that has driven her away. And apparently my tradition-minded troops would be very, very annoyed.
Thanks to “longgone” for asking the essential question in a “sport of TV news” comment.
Thanks to all the other commenters for the abuse.
Thanks to the late Screamin’ Jay Hawkins just for being who he was.