Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Old Idea for Old Media

This week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became the 12th metropolitan newspaper in the United States since March of 2007 to end daily print publication. I'm guessing that it won't be the last. While I'll leave it for others (such as the pundits at to analyze most of the implications for society, there is one aspect of this phenomenon that I wish to explore. For all of the talk over the last several election cycles of "blue states" and "red states", with each local newspaper that either shuts down or declines in prominence, the nation becomes a little more homogenized.

The newspaper has been a bit of a holdout, the last medium in which people expect to access a localized or regionalized voice rather than a centralized, perhaps hegemonic perspective. But all other media started out this way. Once upon a time it was possible for a music act to have a hit record in Pittsburgh and be unknown in Philadelphia. But with homogeneous playlists, FM radio stations are now almost indistinguishable from one market to the next (and deregulation has resulted in almost half the stations in America owned by one company, while the remaining half are mostly possessed by a few more). On the AM dial, the same syndicated shows echo through car radios from coast to coast, and even the same handful of deep-voiced individuals read station promos which sound exactly the same save for the station's call letters.

As for television, station owners realized very early on that costs associated with original programming were easier to spread around than to absorb solely, and the network was born. Therefore, the only thing that differentiates Boston's NBC affiliate from San Antonio's is the local news. But it wasn't always that way--in the early days TV stations often had identities as distinct as early radio stations. Budgets might not have been big enough to allow for technologically advanced programs, but variety shows, kids shows, and music programming all flourished.

Although local news continues to be a stalwart of each market's television stations, news alone does not serve to present and portray a given city's culture. Local newscasts generally do not allow for an exchange of opinion. They generally don't devote much time to the artistic communities within a city. The local sports scene is covered by two-minute highlight packages. In short, local TV stations have not represented a full range of the vibrancy of their communities. But then again, because of newspapers, they really haven't had to.

Now, though, with the decline of the newspaper and the simultaneous decline in network television ratings, I wonder if the time is ripe for a bold television owner to break from the traditional "affiliate" model and step all the way back to television's early days, carving out a new business model based on a very old model. I envision a station that would borrow a little bit from each of the sections that comprise a newspaper. A heavy news cycle would be supplemented with local opinion and talk shows (is it outrageous to suggest that every city could have their own Oprah Winfrey?). Every major local event would be covered live, and weekend and nighttime programming would focus on the arts and local culture (Austin City Limits is great, but is it outrageous to suggest that every city could stage live concerts with talented acts?) Local high school and perhaps college sports would be carried live.

Perhaps the type of capital needed to launch such a project is unrealistic given the economy, and perhaps some would criticize such a venture as a glorified public access channel, but I believe that such an innovation is the type of thing that is needed in media, particularly old media, today. And if the station goes belly up, at least there are less newspapers around to print the obituary.


Blogger Eileen said...

you mentioned local TV stations and the first thing that came to mind was UHF and "Nothing! Absolutely nothing! STUPID! You're so STU-PIIIIIIIIIIID!" one of my favorites.

11:24 AM  

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