Irene came and went over a week ago -- and, despite the widespread flooding and power outages, it could have been a whole lot worse. Conversely, despite the nonstop coverage, local television reporting could have been a whole lot better.
In some ways, reporting on Irene resembled storm coverage from years, or even decades, past. Despite the cool "gizmo" weather maps, storm track graphics and a sprinkling of digital content, the majority of coverage featured news teams deployed in their rain slickers and boots. The result -- a constant drone of puddles, downed trees and power lines, and the occasionally ridiculous storm chaser tempting fate.
Now, if it were 1985, this would have been acceptable; but in 2011, it is borderline irrelevant.
Broadcast television remains a vital source of news and information, especially in times of crisis. However, when the nonstop "media storm" rivals the haphazard nature of the storm itself, it's time to rethink how video content is locally packaged and disseminated.
In the case of last weekend's events, grab the playbook from the big online brand marketers and consider the following:
1. Refine the term "local coverage" and how media assets work in unison. In a world of hyper-media fragmentation -- from iPads, Roku boxes, smartphones and personalized content on apps and other services -- local broadcast television still treats entire metropolitan regions, such as the New York DMA, as a single entity instead of the myriad of towns and suburbs it purports to serve. This must change, and tapping localism is the key. Already proven online (the best laboratory for digital video), why not make localism a reality for broadcast?
Localism is a catchall phrase marketers use to describe methods that refine engagement practices with customers in local markets. Groupon deals, Twitter feeds, Foursquare check-ins, Matrix (2D) mobile barcodes, hyper-targeting of email and direct response all play their part. There are also start-ups such as Patch and Baristanet seeding content and marketing from the ground up, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.
If local broadcast television desires a relevant role in the "localism" game, they must evolve the way they look at regional markets and handle news gathering, especially for real-time events like storm coverage.
Yes, most local TV outlets have websites, online video, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. But how well do all these content sources work in unison? Considering the dramatic ratings decline of network news in recent years, perhaps it's time local outlets reevaluate how these digital assets can work together, especially during a real-time crisis such as an approaching storm.
2. Stick with the program. Instead of anchors asking the same banal questions hour after hour, a station should stick with its regularly scheduled programming, adding enhanced "Storm Watcher" news and information tickers running both underneath and to the side of content on the screen -- an excellent method for referring viewers to relevant information and real-time updates. ESPN already does something similar during much of its sports coverage; time for local news to do the same, especially during crisis periods.
Even better, a station could have run a commercial-free "Seinfeld Stormathon" overnight with live "Storm Watcher" tickers running on both the bottom and side. Program breaks could then be used for news and weather updates. Service the public good and keep them at ease with humor, interrupting programming only when absolutely necessary. At 3 a.m. on Saturday, waiting out the storm with my family, I would have preferred a few episodes of Seinfeld over the "yada, yada, yada" of half-asleep news anchors.
3. Give digital, especially video, its due. Viewers already have a multitude of ways for obtaining the information they need when they need it. Nonstop news coverage, however, still has its place, but should be relegated to either digital broadcast sub-channels, or even better, live and packaged online video feeds. Viewers who then want specific information can tap these outlets as needed. For example, an interview with the Brooklyn borough president may be of vital importance to Brooklyn residents, but viewers in Westchester may have different needs. Offer viewers a "local" roadmap online to obtain the specific details or check out news from neighboring regions, as they so choose.
4. Build a following from the ground up. Communities need help not just in times of emergency. Locally relevant digital video offers opportunities for broadcasters during normal operating modes too. Consider deepening connections with school systems, chambers of commerce and other local organizations to inspire the next generation of videographers, journalists, artists and marketers. Teach the "tricks of the trade" to viewers and local businesses, and buzz and loyalty will follow.
Perhaps it's time to build new collaborative local video platforms, community-financed and broadcaster-managed. For example, imagine an online version of "Main Street" local retailers use to connect with consumers in specific neighborhoods -- deepening brand connections while targeting offers for specific products and services, such as available storm cleanup supplies.
If viewers are to continue looking to television for news and information, real-time or otherwise, broadcast must evolve how they package news and information and create a vital, real-time hub. It starts with a greater emphasis on localism and refining delivery based on relevance and timing. It continues with combining digital video and online content much more seamlessly. Finally, it evolves when communities are provided the tools and techniques to make sure video, both over the air and online, works for them.