30 Years Later, New Change Confronts Local Media

This space is being used to write about the TV business again because what’s going on in that industry is prompting questions in this direction almost every day.

At the same time, it brings me back 30 years to the day when I was preparing to move 700 miles South to work full-time in the TV business. In June of 1994, just like today, the local TV business was trying to meet the demands of its audience in new ways as change was happening fast. The circumstances are different, but it’s a good time (please, if you can) to pause and understand what’s happening now, as I attempted to do in this recent episode of the Daily Detroit podcast. 

30 years ago, the business of local TV news was growing, as Fox grew its affiliation footprint to VHF (look it up if you don’t remember) stations that were owned by a company called New World Communications. The message across the Fox affiliate network was clear: If you wanted to stay in, you had to add of expand local news – the company was giving you the hours in the morning and in Prime Time to do it profitably. That meant stations had to staff up quickly, which caused job openings, particularly in the big markets where New World was – a pretty handy thing if you were young, mobile and willing to work for cheap, like the guy pictured here who won the job lottery and went to work as the news writer on the most-watched 11 p.m. newscast in the country, while producing cable news inserts and, soon, weekend newscasts. That was at powerhouse WSB-TV in Atlanta, a station that had some openings when the soon-to-be Fox affiliate started hiring.

In the summer 1994, local TV news was still mass media, as Baby Boomers and their parents watched it habitually after their favorite syndicated and network shows. Sure, cable was cutting into that, but at the same time, the O.J. Simpson case was changing cable and foreshadowing what online news would be in the decades to come.

Fast forward to today, when cord-cutting and now-established (let’s face it – social media started to take hold 15 years ago) information consumption patterns are causing a revenue challenge for local TV stations, as explored here in December. Across the country, familiar anchors and reporters, and dozens of behind-the-scenes professionals, are receiving buyouts to end their careers or just seeing their contracts not renewed, as owners prepare for a downturn, similar to what the local newspaper and radio businesses have seen in recent decades.

At the same time, technology is helping viewers get information in ways that fit into their lives better than newscasts at 5, 6 and 11 might now. Streaming channels allow for news programming at times that don’t mirror the network schedule of the 1950s and instant access to news at it happens, even if something else is “on TV.” TV station websites host live video where viewers can see as much or as little on stories they want to explore. But will any of that make any money? Or enough to satisfy shareholders? Just like in every other form of media, those puzzle pieces have yet to click together.

In 1994, it was impossible to envision what 2024 might be like for any industry, especially one that seemed like it was picking up steam less than 50 years after it first proliferated. Those who didn’t blink then saw the dynamics change. As the people you “grow up watching” retire from your screen, it’s all about to change again.