Thursday, June 13, 2013

Too Damn Much Local TV 'News,' But Gannett Is Watching

Media watchers are scratching their heads today over news that the Gannett company is buying a company called Belo -- which owns 20 local TV stations around the country -- for $1.5 billion.

Why would anyone want to buy assets of declining value like local TV stations, which used to be financial powerhouses but are no longer, now that cable is king. Oh sure, there is the value of retransmission fees from  cable companies that want buy programming, yada, yada.

But the real reason is simple, it seems to me, and I refer you to the post here the other day about there being "too damn much local news" on TV. 

Gannett has always been known not for any measure of quality, but for a constant drive toward monopolization, as has been its long and undistinguished record in the newspaper business. 

Buying Belo will make Gannett, which is already a major player in the local TV station market, into the fourth largest TV station operator. And it says it might become larger in that market with future acquisitions. And the race is on to merge. For example, Media General and New Young Broadcasting, two other major owners of local TV stations, announced a merger last week, which will give Media General ownership of 30 local TV stations in 27 markets. (Yes, that means three will directly overlap. Wonder what happens there?)

For Gannett, how does buying a new bunch of local broadcast outlets this fit with Gannett's well-establish taste for monopolistic behavior? 

Well, take those local TV stations (please!) Most of them have declining viewership, but are characterized by one thing: Seemingly endless local "news" programming. At some stations, the local news is on eight hours a day. That doesn't mean there is enough local "news," or sufficient staff, to cogently fill eight hours, or even a single hour, with actual news. It means that the local TV stations are ginning up hours and hours of desperate attention-seeking gimmicks -- shouts of "Late Breaking!" all the day long being perhaps the most pernicious, along with promotional features, video produced by outside corporate interests and presented as legitimate news, even blatant advertising that's presented as news. Yes, the actual commercial ad-time is sold cheap, but there is so much more to sell!

Nationally, local TV stations have been sharply increasing the amount of time in their broadcast days that's filled by local "news" programming. In 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, a leading media researcher, local TV stations in the U.S. devoted an average of 5.5 hours each weekday to local news. In 2004, the average was 3.6 hours. Obviously, that doesn't mean there is more local news to cover, or (God forbid) that your local TV station has developed a sudden interest in serving the public's need to know. It means there is more money to be made selling local advertising on tricked-up marketing and promotional programming disguised as news.

Meanwhile, there's another trend at work. The Federal Communications Commission and other supposed regulators long ago rolled over in favor of cartel behavior in broadcast news. Rolled over to the point where in some markets, Tucson being one of them, two supposed competing TV stations are jointly producing their local news programming under only the flimsiest covering pretending to indicate that they are in fact separate.

According to a report out of the University of Delaware public policy school (link), of the 1,300 commercial TV stations in the U.S. in 2010, 177 had "station duopolies" -- agreements on shared services such as providing local news programming. That trend has intensified since 2010. 

Ah, now we can see right up Gannett's alley. 

Gannett has pretty much given up on the newspaper business, which incidentally it did its best to diminish over many years. Its local newspaper operations are now called "community digital information centers" or something to that effect. And the longtime Gannett CEO and corporate pirate Al Neuharth is now pushing up the daisies (my suggested sunny USA Today-type hed on his recent obit: "Most in USA Still Alive Today, Excluding Al Neuharth"), USA Today is exposed as a revenue-suck. I give it less than a year of survival as a print paper. Al -- long retired but considered something of a guiding light in the company till his recent death -- at least was a newspaper guy, if a lousy one. But he is barely cold in the ground and Gannett is galloping elsewhere. You've noticed all of those buyout-takers at USA Today in recent months?

Gannett's move more forcefully into local TV stations can only be driven by one thing. It clearly believes that the FCC and the Justice Department will continue to encourage anti-competitive behavior in broadcasting. There are enormous opportunities to do in local broadcasting what Gannett has so assiduously done in newspapers: Squeeze out competition, maximize profits, cut costs to the point where the cheapest possible product generates the highest possible revenue with the least required corporate effort. That is the tried-and-true formula. (It's no great coincidence that this formula has certain similarities to that utilized by some sweatshop in Guangzhou producing cheap Halloween ornaments for the U.S. market.)

Voila! News at 4, 6, 8, 10, noon, 3, 6 and 10! Also on our sister station, same damn news!

UPDATE: In a credulous story in the Gannett-owned Arizona Republic in Phoenix today, Gannett says that buying the Belo stations will result in a "super group" of stations that could reach a third of all U.S. households, but not to worry! Even though both companies have broadcast operations with overlap in five markets, including Phoenix, they will nevertheless "compete head-to-head." 

Uh huh.


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