Conversations with my TV – How will the Fourth Estate survive the Social Spring (Part 2)

media09In Part 2: How your bad competitor can keep you from greatness; how social media forever changed the way people consume content; radio and TV redefined as ‘custodians of context’ and ideas for innovation in audience capturing.

(Click here for Part 1)

How my bad competitor repositions me

The problem with the South African broadcasting landscape is that it is too much shaped by the SABC’s historic and current political bias.

The brand of news coverage provided by independent news media before and after South Africa’s transition to democracy is inextricably linked to how much the public broadcaster (or newspapers sympathetic to the government at the time) would skew or totally ignore stories of national importance.

Respected journalism schools at institutes of higher learning were themselves shaped during a time when the state machinery was working against the freedom of the press. No wonder the discourse is mostly about the virtues of good journalism, rather than innovation in reaching audiences.

Instead of a news organisation comparing itself to competitors, it should focus on its own quest for excellence.

We should talk about international best practices in terms of production values, look and feel, scheduling formats, integration of first and second phase journalism and new ways of content creation that will speak to modern consumption trends. In order to be a really good journalist, one must fully unlock the strengths of the medium that you are working in. Some South African newspapers are excellent at this, even though their medium is supposedly under greater threat than electronic media.

Only when we achieve excellence in television or radio production, underpinned with impeccable journalistic principles, we will capture the attention of our audience.

In South Africa, independent media should guard against getting themselves repositioned by the SABC’s brand of news.

As odd as this might sound, it is plausible that as strategists endeavour to rid the public of the broadcaster’s “propaganda perception”, they could advise SABC News to aggressively position itself as the one who does not always find fault with everything – the big patriotic hero.

It is a positive brand value that would sit very well with their target market – the overwhelming majority of South Africans who might feel that they are constantly being picked on by opposition parties and independent media for not being able to get anything right. There is a South Africa out there that looks very different from the newsroom or suburbia. And that South Africa often feels we judge the hell out of them.

“Perception is Reality” – and the danger is that independent media, in their quest to consistently expose all the wrongs in society, can end up with egg in their face. As much as we have a duty to shine that light of truth to expose the evil in the world, we also have a duty to help build a nation. The only way to build is to help your brother up when he falls.

It is a difficult balancing act that comes down to attitude. And by making people, instead of power politics, the centre of news coverage. And ask yourself twice if your cynical angle is really necessary.

Twitter killed the video star

The social media revolution has taken the world by storm. Facebook, Twitter and the myriad of other social networking communities have been around for some time. But as time goes on, user behaviour becomes more and more sophisticated.

Facebook pages, status updates, tweets and retweets, Google+’ing, Instagram and Flickr photo sharing, Foursquare check-ins, WordPress and Tumblr blogging, microblogging and content management are now so much part of people’s personal and business lives that a world without it would be unimaginable. Especially in countries with large populations who are online all the time.

The thinking in South African media circles has always been that the majority of the population is sheltered from this online revolution because we suffer from Internet discrimination, slow connections and limited access to bandwidth. That is all changing rapidly and with affordable smartphone deals available to more and more people, social media is gaining a much bigger foothold than initially thought.

Fortunately, most independent news companies in South Africa ensured that they are taking advantage of social media from the outset; thereby opening up a whole new market of consumers who are not attracted to traditional media, but want to have access to news.

When, during February 2013, the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court became the theatre for the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing frenzy, Twitter finally carved out its niche in South Africa and put the nail solidly in the coffin of TV and radio’s decades’ long hold on breaking news. Twitter was only able to do this because of its unique way of bringing people together in a social network.

The second-by-second rolling news coverage – broadcast into cyberspace by the pack of journalists and received into individualised feeds that the news companies have no control over, created a media phenomenon that simply cannot be matched. It was quite remarkable to be in the midst of it, experiencing the ups and downs of the courtroom storylines while witnessing the birth of new consumer behaviour.

Conversations with my TV – the nightly news reinvented

We live in the fast-paced world of 24-hour news, forever surrounded by a barrage of messages that vie for our attention.

24-hour news is a very important development in recent history and plays a big part in shaping the national discourse and in holding powerful people to account. If you are a despot and you are confronted with either 20 seconds of coverage in the nightly news or live cameras on you all of the time, the ball game changes considerably.

Consultants and media strategists will tell you the logic in this modern age of consumer choice is that people do not want to be subjected to appointment programming. And they definitely do not want to wait for 7 pm to hear the day’s news when they can get it on any other possible device at any time they want.

So at the world’s biggest broadcasters, their 24-hour cable or satellite news channels are regarded as flagships – shown off to the public with impressive sets that take centre stage in vast newsrooms.

In these newsrooms, the teams who produce the old-fashioned 30-minute nightly newscast for the free-to-air network channel sit in a corner and have to go and present their broadcast in lesser studios somewhere in the bowels of the building.

But why is it then that these heritage nightly broadcasts presented by stalwart anchors consistently rake in the biggest audience ratings for their channels while making the most money for the company?

The answer to that lies somewhere between access issues, the fact that humans are creatures of habit and most importantly that they want to see someone they know and trust put all of the days confusing messages in a context that makes sense to them.

Most people are not news savvy and do not interpret or analyse the stories for themselves. Or they just do not have the mind space for it in their busy days. They rely on their trusted TV broadcast to do it for them in a short, concise way so that they can go on with their lives.

In that lays enormous responsibility for editors, but also great opportunities for nightly and 24-hour news at a time when the Social Spring is challenging their traditional hold on information sharing.

Innovation

The way that all radio and TV news providers should position themselves in the future is to become the custodians of context.

All output, whether a pre-packaged insert, the way the news copy and intros are written, the live interviews – everything must be more than just the story.

As a way to convey context, South African broadcast journalism can do with bringing the focus back to ordinary people and tailor-make each minute of output to the needs of their target audience.

How does the story relate to the target audience? How do the copy and visuals relate to the target audience? How does the graphic relate to the target audience? How does the anchor relate to the target audience? Because the more they do relate, the more you will see your audience ratings soar.

For one, we can do with a shake-up in the way that public and independent media produce their holy cows of nightly newscasts and prime time radio shows.

Radio current affairs is an outpost of an almost lost art in modern radio production. Documentary style audio reporting forms vivid pictures in people’s imagination. Sadly it is lost in a fast-paced world where the formats of those shows do not keep track of the behaviour of its desired target audience. It is safe to assume most people can only spend 20 minutes of their valuable time with your product. Also, the most consistent thing about your broadcast is that people are coming and going all the time. Then make sure every 20-minute sweep contains a good overall mix of your product. Do updated headlines and forward selling at least every 15 minutes. Do not be scared to repeat good bits 45, 60 or 90 minutes later, depending on your strategy.

As a good host would do, make the time they spend with you as captivating as possible. If it has been worth their while, they will remember you the next time when they are looking for good content to consume.

In TV, South African channels are mostly good at the classic packaged report and understand what makes it great. But beyond that something as simple as the signposting of rundowns can make a huge difference to a broadcast. Do you always have to present the headlines and forward teases, in the same way, every night? Those little intros, links into ad breaks and outros are the golden thread that makes the broadcast human and is almost more important to get right than anything else. Co-presenters should rehearse their on-air interaction so that they can come across as natural as possible in order to captivate the viewers. 24-hour channels should not repeat the same headline copy over and over. At least change the wording every time, if not the angle. Especially if you want to win quarter hours during living room viewing at night.

How much creativity is sacrificed in news production because editors are afraid that they will confuse the technical crew or catch the anchor and even the viewer off guard? Hundreds of excuses are made to not be creative and innovative. It’s human nature, but should be challenged every day.

However important the 30 minute TV current affairs show will remain for many years to come, the separation between news and current affairs is entirely out of touch with modern content consumption. People are watching your broadcast now, so they want their context now. They don’t want to wait until Sunday night for analysis. They have lives.

Let the news content be a mix of hard news and context. If it is the ten year anniversary of the Iraq war, and it means something to your audience, don’t just use the story hard as a filler voice-over with Reuters visuals that every other competitor is running as well.

Get desk journalists to research the story. Get archive material. Produce a package. Intro it hard, go into the package, get a studio guest to analyse, have graphics ready to aid the memorability of what the guest is saying. Run an online poll in the week and then display a graphic with a pie chart to show what your audience thinks about the issue – the more you can draw your audience into your broadcast on an ‘official’ level the better. Think vox pops on steroids. Speak to your audience and analysts via Skype from their living rooms.

Plan it all in advance. Do not sacrifice your normal hard news run, just bring more depth and context to stories that your target audience is confronted with every day. If you do not give them the context, they will go and find someone else to give it to them – probably the newspapers, or their online versions.

Most importantly, the context war will be won only if you deploy experienced anchors and reporters throughout. Get the senior guys out of the management offices back onto the air. The audience wants to hear the news from credible people who are at ease with themselves and the topic at hand.

For the one who gives better context to his audience, with a real heart for what is important and relevant to the ordinary guy on the street, will win. And ensure the relevance of traditional media for years to come.

The way to compete with individualised social media feeds is to become one of them.

When an hour of broadcast output is over, I want to feel that I have just had a conversation with my TV.

Gustav Greyling is an independent media strategist and freelance TV news anchor (gustavgreyling.co.za).

(Click here for Part 1)


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