The moose, the entrepreneur, and the local news

This morning I stopped in at a local market to pick up a little breakfast snack. As seems to be the case everywhere these days, I found myself face-to-face with a large screen TV at the checkout counter. (Heaven forbid we should not have a screen at us in every restaurant, elevator, and public space.)

The TV was tuned to one of the local morning news shows. A segment came on, the title of which was something like “video captures moose fight.” Right then and there, just as Bruce Banner inevitably transforms into the Hulk when confronted with a threat, I knew that the moose story was going to trigger one of my periodic diatribes about local TV news. So here goes.

Even as the formerly great network “nightly news” programs, along with the weekly long-form news shows like 60 Minutes and 20/20, have declined into infotainment, local TV news, which was never that good in the first place, has managed to get worse. Now, thanks to the ubiquity of video cameras on smartphones, instead of hearing about all of the local fires and shootings, we can now enjoy high-definition video of fires, shootings, beatings, and riots – not to mention the occasional car chase shot from a police helicopter and (since the broadcast must always end on a light note) heartwarming animal videos – from around the planet.

Which brings me back to the moose fighting. Why is local TV news showing this? Of course, because someone shot the video and it became available to them inexpensively, and moose fighting is fun and will get people to watch. Except that it doesn’t really get people to watch. I regularly poll people on this, and there’s not a person under the age of 65 that I know who even watches local TV news. Real statistics bear out both the increasing pace of decline in viewership along with the aging of the audience.

Why does local TV news need to show me moose fighting, when I can go on to YouTube any time and find enough videos of moose fighting to last me a lifetime – not to mention cute cats? At least on YouTube, I don’t have to suffer through the inane banter and fake laughter of blow-dried news readers (who seem to be formed from a mold created back in 1950, although they are now pouring a bit more ethnic diversity into these molds). A “sticky” situation at a Tennessee airport when raw sewage is sprayed on luggage at a local airport? Hilarious!

The only conceivable thing that local TV news is good for is sports and weather, and in the age of the Internet, where you can get the sports and weather on demand, how much value does local TV news add here, either?

The best use of local TV news is for seeing newscasters get pranked; as in this must-see classic.

Local TV news annoys me so much not simply because it’s terrible and insults my intelligence, but also because it defies the predictions of free-market theory and entrepreneurship generally. As the principal of goodcounsel, I have a front row seat to entrepreneurship and have been involved in it directly, over the course of a couple of decades. But never have I come across a TV news entrepreneur.

Here we have a product that’s terrible and is losing market share year after year, and yet the suppliers keep supplying the same product, without any effort to improve it, and no entrepreneurial competitors seem to come forward with a better product. Why not? I’m genuinely interested in people’s ideas.

One possibility is that even though it’s losing its audience, local TV news is extremely cheap to produce and so it remains a profit center. And while fewer and fewer people watch, in an era of audience fragmentation, these programs still aggregate a considerable audience. As one article about local TV news put it:

Local TV news is still what the majority of Americans turn to to keep informed. According to Pew’s most recent State of the News Media report, published in 2017, more people get their news from television than any other source, and, of those viewers, the majority get that news from their local TV station — and their websites. In smaller markets, especially, television stations’ websites—not those of newspapers—are often the dominant source of local news online, according to a recent report by the Knight Foundation. What’s more, unlike many print and digital-only publications, local TV news is still profitable. In 2016, local TV over-the-air advertising revenue totaled $20.6 billion, and nearly 85 percent of that was made by some 800 “news-producing stations,” according to Pew, with data from market researcher BIA/Kelsey. (Reinventing Local TV News, Nieman Reports.)

(Note, however, that this was written prior to the recent, very sharp decline in viewership.)

In any case, couldn’t these programs be more profitable if they maintained, or even attempted to grow, their audience? Eventually, all of their over-65 viewers will die, and then what? I suppose that’s just too far down the road for a business person to think about nowadays. It is sad because there are important news stories to be told about so many important issues. Are we stuck with anodyne talking heads and moose stories for another 20 years?

Categorised as: Entrepreneurship, News and Views

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