Executives from Fox Television Stations, E.W. Scripps, Tegna, Gray and Blackbird said in a TVNewsCheck webinar Thursday that local content is becoming increasingly crucial in a world of shrinking syndication options, but to pull it off more resources need to be invested in local people and the technology to support them.
By Michael Stahl
Source: tvnewscheck.com, April 2022

While the number of hours that TV stations must fill has increased with the emerging demands of OTT, the syndication market has also constricted, becoming a far less reliable source of bankable content. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but some show must go on, and execs have been rethinking their approach to programming, with cost efficiency in mind, as well as the management and sustainability of the team who make it.

Some see this turn of events as an opportunity for local to shine.

“It’s not fun to cancel things, but I think the re-racking in this case is actually pretty good, and I think there will be some [quality] new shows and obviously lots of good local ideas as well,” said Frank Cicha, EVP of programming for Fox Television Stations of the shrinking syndication market. “If it was spurred on by the lack of syndication, then great, because a lot of the best stuff comes out of local stations. It just does.”

Cicha’s remarks came Thursday during a TVNewsCheck panel discussion, Producing More Programming Without Breaking The Bank (Or Your Staff). Moderated by TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, the conversation centered on viable options for content and how to produce it affordably, while minding the workload of employees who are already running thin in the wake of recent turbulent events.

Matt Jaquint, SVP of local media at Gray Television, expressed views similar to Cicha’s.

“We’ve gone full force local, which is what the viewers want,” he said. “More local news, more lifestyle shows, features — we see it more and more.”

Jaquint said that in a number of Gray markets, the company has replaced syndication with local programming, and have seen, in many cases, ratings rise. More is on the way, he said.

A diverse mix of programming is key, and station groups should perhaps ignore their intuition to just broadcast more news, which is generally cost effective and impactful on communities. However, even a newsman like Sean McLaughlin, VP of news at the local division of The E.W. Scripps Co., will tell you that there is such a thing as too much news.

“You go to a mid-size community and [you have to ask], how much news is actually happening that you can fill four hours of news?” McLaughlin said. “There is high appeal to it, but we have to think about audience appetite.”

One alternative solution could be game shows, not unlike those produced in the past by syndicators, but with a local hook. Cicha praised the format, noting that it’s the oldest in TV history and even predates television, going back to radio days. Fox’s WTXF Philadelphia, he said, has seen success in this area, with The ClassH-Rooma trivia game show that pits teachers against students. Not only has the program produced ratings, he continued, but local buzz as well, with teachers and students eager to compete. Even employees who work on the show enjoy themselves because the atmosphere is so fun and exciting, Cicha said.

Jaquint voiced his satisfaction with InvestigateTV programming that has gone over Gray’s airwaves, executed with a staff of just 10, who operate outside of Gray’s stations — though they sometimes collaborate with the local teams. He said on Gray stations alone, across its markets, InvestigateTV is averaging a million viewers each week, and he said the company envisions a world in which the program is expanded to a daily show.

“We just continue to grow, and I think that’s the key: You’ve got to invest in what’s important for journalists,” Jaquint said, adding that Gray is also expanding its Washington bureau to provide local channels more programming options, particularly as the midterm election cycle heats up.

Scripps has a D.C. bureau of its own as well as a Denver news team that delivers additional national content, including a national show called The Race. McLaughlin explained that the group has tried a hybrid model for content, mixing national and local news — repackaging national stories that may air in the 4 p.m. hour for the local 5 o’clock slot — to break up monotony.

“The way we approach everything is: How can we get the best journalists, the best stories and the best storytelling, and then scale it across the group,” McLaughlin said. “When you think of it that way, you look at the investments differently, because when you can amortize that cost across 40 markets — or more than that — it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”

Since Tegna launched its fact-checking-focused brand, Verify, the company has built out its team and tasked it with producing more cross-market content. Depp said Verify has emerged as a “tentpole” content provider for Tegna, and Adam Ostrow, the group’s chief digital officer, said it’s also attracted younger consumers to the brand, particularly through social media platforms Snapchat and TikTok.

But like other groups, Tegna’s not solely relying on news-related content to take up airtime and lure viewers. The group’s Locked On local sports podcasting network, acquired in January 2021, delivers daily podcasts for every professional sports team, as well as a number of college squads. Tegna has leveraged the talent that appears on the podcasts to act as on-air experts for TV sports stories. The company has also invested in production equipment that gives its podcast hosts the ability to film themselves while they record the audio, generating video content for the station group’s networks — basically a two-for-the-price-of-one deal.

“Those [videos] are getting millions of views per month and … the average viewer is watching 10 minutes-plus when they tune into a Locked On show on YouTube,” Ostrow said. “Looking at the future we see that model of low-cost, highly relevant local content being a big part of what we do, particularly in steaming.”

Fortunately, in this time where speed is so much of the essence — particularly when it comes to news delivery — and tightened budgets, there’s emerging technology that can help make production processes more seamless. Depp asked Daniel Webster, VP of strategic accounts in the Americas for Blackbird, about how his company’s cloud-based editing and publishing tech serves as part of the solution to the programming dilemma.

“What Blackbird enables is the ability to find the content really fast, giving universal access to the content, being able to then work with it in an effective way and distribute it really quickly,” Webster said. “Bloomberg — yes, a Blackbird customer — has 2,700 journalists and the goal is to make editing as simple as writing a story so they can all get their stories out there.”

Later, Webster said TV companies, particularly those looking to expand their news content offerings, need to invest in people so as not to overwhelm teams, but also in technology that aids them in their work.

“Make sure you do have the feet on the street and that you’re doing the reporting in the communities, and then, ideally, you use the technologies to make the process of making the content and distributing it to the right audiences do the heavy lifting,” Webster said.

Anything to make the news person’s job easier will likely be welcomed by those teams.

“The stress loads they’re carrying are enormous,” Depp said of current newsgroup staffers. “They’ve been covering extra shifts for sick colleagues for over two years now, many newsroom veterans are contemplating leaving the industry and the fresh graduates who are coming into the business have drawn much harder lines about what they will and they won’t do for a paycheck.”

“The number one thing our newsroom managers are doing right now is caring for personnel and working to bring new people into the business,” McLaughlin said in response. “It’s challenging.”

He said companies can reduce work for its news employees by “get[ting] a longer life out of the content we produce.” With local news, he said, 12 hours after a package goes live, it’s useless. However, as newsgroups prioritize more in-depth reporting on important, far-reaching local issues, stations can “extend the shelf life of that content.”

Jaquint said Gray is going to take the money it would have invested in syndication and direct it toward hiring news staff and giving its news teams greater resources.

“We’re going to have to slowly lift up pay, too,” he added. “Our industry’s never been a high-paying one; we’re going to have to lift some of that up and I think that’s where you take that money: Invest it in people, people, people.”