If NBCUniversal authored a low point in the local-TV business three and a half years ago, it offered close to a 180 Monday with word about a significant investment in its station group. In the process, it delivered another example of broadcasters’ seemingly sudden belief that hard news programming makes for good business.
In March 2008, NBCU put forward its intention to sell its owned-and-operated NBC stations in the Hartford and Miami markets. There were multiple reasons from wanting to focus on the top-10 markets (where it has seven stations) to wanting to direct more resources toward new distribution platforms.
But, the implication seemed to be a stark message that NBCU felt local TV’s future was shaky with so many other media options. It was hard to believe that the two markets themselves were the reason for the planned divestitures – Hartford, combined with New York and Philadelphia, gave NBCU reach from Delaware to just south of Boston, while South Florida seemed to be a vibrant area.
In retrospect, the move seems even more surprising considering it came months before the Lehman Brothers collapse. NBCU eventually reached a deal to sell the Miami station to the Washington Post Co., but that fell apart.
The two stations remain part of NBCU and now not only should remain so, but will benefit from the renewed emphasis on local TV by NBCU’s new controlling owner Comcast. That was further crystallized with the announcement that the company has plans to bulk up its news operations across its 10-station portfolio, with more newscasts in multiple markets, hiring more newsgathering staff members and adding investigative and consumer watchdog units in five markets and more helicopter coverage.
In an NBC promotional video, Valari Staab, president of the NBC Owned Television Stations, said traditional local news has a lot of runway ahead in its current form. TV viewing in general is on the upswing, she said, “so it's shown its ability to survive in the long run.”
Nonetheless, she indicated the greater reporting capabilities should also help with new options such as online and mobile consumption as “it’s our job to make sure that we get the information that people need (to them) in the way that they want it.”
The NBC investment is the latest signal that broadcasters believe there is considerable upside in improving their newscasts. On a national level, it didn’t seem too long ago that ABC, CBS and NBC (maybe less so) hardly viewed news as a growth area as they were willing to cut staff dramatically and trim bureaus.
Even recently, while a Presidential address has offered the opportunity to showcase a network’s news quality and talent in prime time, networks instead have been happier when the chief executive would go in the 7 p.m. hour. When the President has been slotted into prime time, they seemingly couldn’t wait to switch back to regularly scheduled programming ASAP.
Now with Scott Pelley, CBS seems to believe there’s an appetite for less-sensational news in the evenings and it doesn’t need a breakout personality to deliver it. It looks to be reorienting its morning news focus to, well, news -- which offers an element of counter-programming to some of the softer fare on NBC and ABC.
Meanwhile, NBC is giving up an hour of prime time to launch what it hopes will be a type of “60 Minutes”-style newsmagazine with Brian Williams. (It may be easier to clear the space when your network is struggling to find any success in prime time, but still a notable commitment.)
And NBC may be sending the ultimate signal that hard news is in vogue: none other than Ted Koppel -- he of the hard-hitting interview no matter the subject – is on board with Williams.
If networks wanted any signal that Americans are starting to dial-in to news with increasing fervor, for the first time in what seems to be a long while, the three evening newscasts have shown an ability to attract larger audiences.
That should only continue leading up to election day 2012.