Local TV news: Waiting for the other shoe to drop

Photo: CC from flickr user Lachlan Hardy

Photo: CC from flickr user Lachlan Hardy

Remember recently how Alan Mutter warned that the business of local TV news — supported primarily by expensive advertising on its flagship news programs — was about to be newspapered? That is, to have its very business model rendered, eventually, moot?

Well, here are two more signs that the other shoe is dangling by the merest nanometer of fingernail for local TV news. The first sign is about as concrete as you can get and the other is informed speculation about what Apple (and to a lesser extent, Google) may be up to in the TV space, as soon as this coming Monday.

First, the news, which, here in Baltimore at least, is not good for the news. David Zurawik reports in The Sun that viewership for 11 p.m. newscasts at the ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates has plunged over the past five years in the key demographic of viewers 25 to 54 years of age:

  • WBAL (NBC) down 62%
  • WMAR (ABC) down 56%
  • WJZ (CBS) down 52%

That’s right: The winner of that horserace lost only about half of its 11 p.m. audience.

The usual suspects are cited in the article: The Internet (correct – how much of the late news is actually news for people who are interested in the news?); Our Changing Lifestyles (if this is another word for choosing how to spend a half hour and finding the local tv news wanting, then correct); The arrival of the dreaded Nielsen People Meter (whining and misdirection — if the more accurate and precise tool shows a drop in audience, what does that say about those figures you reported for years using the less precise tool of a hand-completed diary?).

But, to me, the key here is that all of this plunge happened before the onslaught of hyperlocal competition from Aol’s Patch, Yahoo, Fwix and others just now threatening to wash away the footing from under local tv and newspapers. If the past five years have been interesting, the next five are starting to look, well, Biblical.

. . .

And now, the speculation, comma, informed division.

Remember Steve Jobs “hobby,” Apple TV? It was a set-top box released in 2006 and, largely, un-updated in any compelling sense since then. You can rent movies through it, watch video podcasts, show off your photos and watch YouTube videos. Not bad, but you can do a whole lot more with a Boxee box.

There’s currently a growing groundswell of informed speculation (which, in the Apple community, is often 2/5 wish-fulfillment and 3/5 tea-reading) that as soon as this coming week’s World Wide Developer Conference, Apple will reveal a new approach to Apple TV that could very well shift the paradigm for how we “watch tv” in the same way that they changed how we listen to music when iTunes went from a hobby to a full-blown business.

And no one has done a better job of channeling that combination of dreamy-thinking and clue-sifting than Adam Lisagor, in his post titled iPad TV:

I’ve owned and used an Apple TV box for two years. When I found out it could be “opened up” to allow for additional media, it started to overtake my usage of my DVD player and my cable box. So if Apple TV has been, up to now, a hobby, I have been right there with it, a tinkering geek.

But would Steve keep a hobby around for so long without any real plans for it? … Now I’m not one to get all drooley over rumors (yes I am) but when Engadget broke news last week about the next version of the Apple TV box being 1) cheap ($99), 2) run on iPhone OS and 3) streaming-only, without internal storage, I got excited. There are pieces of this hobby that are starting to fit together, and once they do, the hobby will have matured into something important.

For one, what of the massive $1 billion data center Apple’s building in North Carolina? I’ll just echo what others have speculated: this will be where our video originates when we pluck it out of the sky and siphon it through all our devices (including the cheap, tiny new box that sits by the TV).

… It could even be that the Apple TV is the lynchpin of the whole operation, the way that iTunes started as a “hobby” that organized our music collection, and revealed itself to be a hub upon which more than one industry was redefined.

It could be argued that this could be actually good for local stations — allowing them to get their news video in front of even more people in non-traditional channels — but if they don’t think of a way to monetize that video, it’s not. Would you pay 99 cents for access to a video of aftermath of a car crash or a house fire? I’m guessing no.

The reason local television stations (and, under the same model, newspapers) could previously rake in all that advertising cash isn’t so much about the content, but about the content-aggregation. For one discrete half-hour a day, they could guarantee advertisers that a sizable percentage of the local population would tune in for the news/sports/weather bundle and, likely, see the ad in the bargain.

See above for why that’s already no longer working. If Apple and Google get serious about TV, it probably just adds to the pain for local TV stations.

Fake Steve Jobs

I just wandered over to allthingsd.com to see what time the Steve Jobs shindig kicks off and saw this:

Apparently the WSJ artist couldn’t get ahold of Jobs for a sitting and instead drew the barista down the street who “really looks a lot like Steve.”