By John Altenbern, President
Sitting high and dry a thousand miles from the Harvey disaster unfolding in Texas gives you a different perspective on the story.
As local stations in Texas and the networks do yeoman’s duty showing rescues and passing on information, our CJ&N colleagues are noting something else: The most useful sources of information and help for storm victims are on social media. It’s not that TV isn’t doing its job, or doesn’t have a presence on social media.
But television stations are just a few of the many voices – including FEMA, local law enforcement, healthcare, social service agencies – who are all active on social media and responding to users in real time. There’s often little need for the “TV middleman” to get out the word. The closer information is to specific neighborhoods, the more irrelevant TV often becomes with its focus on DMA coverage.
My colleague Mary Beth Marks understands best. She was recently evacuated from her home in the middle of the night because of a huge forest fire. (Thank goodness she is safe!) Her mobile phone was a lifeline, and Facebook posts from the Forest Service and other local agencies kept her in touch with what was happening in a way that local media could not duplicate. At no time did those sources tell her to stay tuned to local media for updates as was the case a decade ago.
Another co-worker explained that law enforcement on social media was the go-to source recently for traffic reports in his area on the day of the solar eclipse. They had relevant local information that wasn’t reported anywhere else. Again, no middleman.
It’s also why Donald Trump can’t stop tweeting. He’s cutting out the middleman of the supposed “fake news media” to take his message directly to supporters. Like it or not, it seems to work.
With all that as a backdrop, I see that CBS is buying an Australian network to “experiment” with OTT content delivery. As my colleague Steve Schwaid wrote last week in his CJ&N Blog, the networks continue to toy with the idea of cutting out the middleman of network affiliates. Maybe it’s a matter of time.
So if local TV is the middleman being squeezed on one end by the hyper-local relevance of social media, and on the other by distribution threats, what’s the cure? Some ideas:
- Be an active video producer on social media. It’s like the lottery – you can’t win if you don’t play. Yours may not be the only voice there, but don’t let it be absent.
- Think more strategically about content choices for TV. The “town crier” role of informing people of events (even weather) is migrating to social media, especially among young people. That still leaves you with lots of stories that explain, investigate, give perspective and help people make sense of their communities.
- Remember emotion. Television is the great emotional storyteller. Faces and voices of your neighbors can be powerful on a 50 inch screen in your living room.
I think we all better create a plan based on research and focus on a local mission that can’t be easily replaced by tweets and cord-cutting. Even in places that are high and dry, the waters are rising.