Blueprint for re-thinking and winning: Joining 2011


Big snowstorm in Chicago.  Watched hour after hour of TV News. The “sheep” factor is astounding.  Here are some thoughts on addressing the issues — this sort of thing applies to ALL media, not only TV. I think the arms race in TV graphics technology is ridiculous. There is a point when special effects simply take over,  then combine that with the slogans they attach to the technology and it’s insane,  then add way too much stuff on the screen and top it off with cloying anchors and you get a headache…it wouldn’t be so bad but EVERY station
is addicted to this and in the end it’s more ONION parody than believable.

I’ve got to credit the people working 24/7 to deliver the information,  but it’s unfortunate that they are hampered by a “format” that is so rigidly enforced and omnipresent that you’d think it was an FCC law to do news a certain standard way.  Then you see sites like this where it’s obvious where things are heading:

But it’ll likely all be incremental change….change that is at the speed of 1965…in 2011. I believe in the “Noticeability scale”

THE NOTICEABILITY THRESHOLD: In may cases we THINK we’re changing,  but it isn’t noticeable and ends up a lot of meetings, labor, effort and concern without results.  I’ll guess most companies are moving forward are around a 5,  when there’s the opportunity to strive for a 10.







I think this relates to Print, TV, online…everything. In content’s look, feel, smell, quality, cool factor, delivery and beyond…Nothing is sacred. Of course if you are SO successful already…then evolution probably isn’t as obviously critical—but even then, you are in a position of strength and have an opportunity to continue to lead.  And because you are so successful,  you probably have the public trust to move forward fearlessly.

Most employees WANT change and often get drips of change with no plan.  What a wasted opportunity to rally a staff to a higher cause.  To create an internal buzz with purpose.  I remember when we’d launch a new radio format—the earth would stop.  It was a mission…exciting…powerful…memorable. Now you get “Well…how do you monetize that?”

My suggestion—If you hear that…RUN.  The idea here is to make something better with bigger ratings,  better execution,  game changing noticeability and public engagement.  If you have to ask how you monetize THAT,  there’s a deeper problem called:  Complete lack of vision.

Now…below is a “critique” of a local Newscast.  I “XXX” names and cities to protect the confidentiality, though these points apply across the board and are PAINFUL to hear,  but weather it’s TV, radio, websites or print– you just MUST come to terms with elements that are, well,  speeding the trip to irrelevancy…those who aggressively act will prevail,  especially since most will remain in denial—but the good news is that denial paves the way for those who get it:

Now—some thoughts to summarize what we discussed:
ANCHORS: I’d encourage you to really go into the rethink mode here in terms of how you or if you use them.   YOU NEED TO RE-EDUCATE PEOPLE (who want it) TO THE REALITIES OF 2010.  It isn’t going to happen by osmosis,  There are people on YOUR staff who “get” this stuff but are held back by the addiction to the 1980’s playbook and lack of efforts in blowing it up.  You gotta LIBERATE the thinkers to create a new XXX that explodes with 2010 thinking!

My issues are:
*I think we are entering the end of the anchor era.  Maybe it’s time to cut the cord,  or dramatically re figure how they are used.

*You gotta come put of the closet with the belief that the model is broken.  Take command.  TEACH AND INSPIRE rather than leak in incremental changes without a bigger plan.
*You showed me some magic stuff, but the second the anchor appeared, it drifted back toward TV Newsland, due to;
–The Look.  Plastic.  Pretty?  Sure,  but EVERY station has pretty people.  Plus they are anti local with their  fake uptown vibe.
–The style.  Pure Onion…everything is in this news anchor cadence which to me sounds SO out of date with the Apple era we’re in.  You can have an I-pad look with the icons but the second the anchors hit—you lose that cool.
–The writing.  Standard issue News speak.  NOTHING different.
–The inflection.  Very SNL/Onion.  OK in ’85 but really dated in my opinion.
I thought the talent you showed me was good but from TV lens.  XXX is attractive and all,  but really more of the same.  XXX is the only one I saw that I thought had a bit of soul.  The others were TV pros…but I think that’s what we need to drastically get away from.  ALL Newscasts are “TV pro” and that is tired.  Pro,  but commodities rather than leaders.
ANCHOR VISIBILITY:  Too much of them.  Maybe that’s the issue.  On the Cop beating story, there’s SO much there…but then the anchor interrupts the magic of the film and the sound.  If you use anchors, maybe it’s far more in the set up, then let pictures, sound and NON-ANCHOR STYLE narration tell the stories.
NARRATION: Again, it gets hurt by anchor speak and anchor writing…And too much of both.  Gets cluttered instead of wide open non traditional PICTURES, SOUND & accents.
VOICES: It’s hard, but I’d put that WAY up on the top of the list.  The beauty of much of what I saw was contaminated by “Joe TV” voices.  POINT:  I think you agree that the Honduran voice on “By Numbers” was POWERFUL.  Well, I’m not suggesting going all Honduran, but the power of that voice is in its raw,  zero TV freshness.  NO STATION has a voice like that.  The opening voices and the anchor voices all struck me as very old school and counter to the visual identity.  What about a COOL African-American voice as your opening voice?  That could be awesome…TOTALLY cool and different.  We’ve got to escape white bread News voices…news cadence…news writing…and reinvent it.  Until you do, all the cool graphics wont make a bit of difference.
DIGITAL TIMER:  The second hand is the key—for subtle urgency.
HEADLINES: I’d put on your XXX hat for the story icon headlines.  I cant think of a stronger pre sell than a strong headline on those upcoming story icons.
Do you thik ANYone will stay tuned for  “Is your car dirty?  Well,  you’re not alone…stay tuned”
MUSIC! I am sending you a  Sound Designer.  I’d seriously think about budgeting that position in there. MUSIC CAN BE SO DAMN POWERFUL. But you need a specialist (I am sending a name to you guys) who can find everything from Waylon Jennings to Wagner to Snoop Dogg to create a sonic environment for:
*opening…where you pick a song that matches the news vibe of the day
*stories…telling stories with a soundtrack.
Think of sound as a trademark.  The other stations use TV “News Music”—you use REAL music.  There are 30 million songs you can choose from that will add an incredible depth to the experience.  The risk is cliché classic rock hits…you need to be musically ultra cool.  Think HBO.  The Sopranos used an obscure reggae band.
Crank it up.  It ain’t an afterthought.  I heard All Along the Watchtower on a piece today…but SO low in the mix…why bother.
WORDING POLICE: Next to yuppie anchors and their plastic look,  head bobbing and news speak writing and inflection,  the wording requires a MAJOR Cliché buzzer. Examples:
“We’ll be right back”   (really? I though you were signing off”)
“The 10pm News” is just getting started   (Duh—I’m WATCHING it!)
“Jim…back to you” (OH! I thought it was back to ME)
“Debby XXX reports”   (Oh…so THAT’S what she’s doing!)
“Coming up” (Isn’t there another word?)

“Tired of the rain?  Find out more, next”  (No…I love eight straight days of rain)
Plus the inane joking banter between anchors strikes me as happy pap.  This gives anchor people a bad name in 2010.  That Oniony fake banter is cloying.
They AREN’T comics.  Trying hard to be funny is painful.
THE DEBATE SEGMENT:  Think REAL.  If XXX is really physically short…fine!  Don’t try to hide human flaws with a desk.  Reality works.
DAY IN PICTURES:  I think XXX is blowing it big time by TV-izing the idea.  It’s AMAZING photos from the web matched with stunning music. That’s it.  XXX has destroyed that in my opinion by TV-izing it.  It should be the most incredible photos from the Web.  Let the photos tell the story.  We can walk you through how we did it in the pilots. I’d really encourage you to consider that style.  And that percussion music in the background is very, very old school.  Keep this one simple and powerful.  What is with TVs obsession with putting percussion behind EVERYthing?
XXX MAILBAG:  Hey—why not call it “we Suck” especially since the hosts SAY it.  Also suggest under producing it.  I think the whole drama gets TV-ized with the “anchory” back n forth. It’s TV Bullshit I think. I’d just show the letter…who and where it’s from and let the letter tell the story.  This had WAY too much happy banter in my opinion.
XXX: The plain black background is wonderful.  Zero TV-ization.  Strikingly different.
Too much Panning in…panning out…it’ll make you dizzy. Simple..clean..clear…potent is best.
CINEMATIC: A key word.  Imagine watching a movie and then you see and hear:
A reporter yapping away or getting in the way…..a reporter talking through a cool scene…the BIG picture cluttered with “stuff”  THINK CINEMATIC. Breathtaking.
….TV-ization and reporters who are the stars instead of the pictures can kill that.
TVIZATION: Another key thing to watch.  Ideas go through the TV filter and end up looking like EVERY other channel.  Over producing…tarting up…cheesing up…over acting…over announcing…”over” doing everything.  Breathe….
CRIME BUREAU:  I’d consider a low tech version.  The CONTRAST between the iPad look and Barney Miller screams “this is a REAL cop not a TV cop”
CELEBRITY CRIMES, DEJA VIEWS, and other EYE CANDY/NEWSFIX IDEAS.  I’d urge you to mimic Newsfix/EC here in that we worked hard to filter out the TVisms. BUT—your idea of the EyeCandy team sending them via Tons is brilliant.  We can do that when we get our EC team in place since they’ll be creating these and others anyways.
TRADEMARKS: Every station has Sports & weather.  These “Crime Bureau” type things can instantly create a new generation of trademarks every bit as key as weather Center and Sports…AND YOU will be the only one that has the,  THAT is innovation…NOTICEABLE innovation.
BLACK & WHITE/RETRO:  Like we discussed at managers meeting today. Some stuff is so bad…it’s brilliant.  Don’t live in the slick TV world. The real world LOVES this stuff.  Liberate the archives!!!!
THE SERIOUSNESS:  You are in a major media center.  You can change the future.  You can make THE difference, but ONLY if you go 100%.XXX is way too competitive for 90% to get noticed.  The killers are the tired but pretty yuppie look, the old school news style and writing and TV-izing ideas.
ONION TV: Seriously.  Staff project.  EVERYONE needs to watch Onion TV News and Today Now…both on YouTube.  LOOK for the clichés and ask yourself—do WE do this?  In all due respect, you probably do.
OK…now that I’ve unloaded.  I don’t want to sound negative because I am COMPLETELY into what you are trying to do!  Fully supportive!  But a few overall final thoughts:
Watch TVization.  It’s in your DNA (because you are a veteran of TV wars—comes with the turf)…fight it. I respect your desire for anchors…but I suggest you REALLY rethink how they are positioned AND beware of letting them overwhelm the show.

Sound!  Music!  Imagine tantalizing the eye with cinematic…the mind with amazing writing and thoughtful zero cheesy TV anchorspeak…AND having an amazing and noticeable SOUNDTRACK.

Cerebral sound & vision with edgy storytelling and powerful presentation.  WOW.  Don’t worry about being TOO cerebral for the room…it’s more of an anti-dumb, mass appeal smart thing than a drug induced Pink Floyd thing.  Its about engaging MINDS…even homeless winos have MINDS that need to be touched.
Watch for TOO hi-tech.  Like the station I told you about that reinvented the newsroom with technology and flash,  but the news still kind of sucks.  I see way too much High tech slick…but REALLY,  more of the same…soul-less.

— Lee Abrams, former Tribune Chief Innovation Officer