Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dreams From Action News

Living in South Jersey, I get South Jersey magazine, which ran a piece this month about a man who appears to be the father of "Action News" on Channel 6 in Philadelphia, which for decades was the highest-ranked local news show in the United States and for an equal number of decades was seen as the station that destroyed television journalism. Because there's a registration wall, I will quote from this story by Charles H. Harrison on George Koehler, and in the full understanding that TV news is linear and newspapers are not, and that one of the strengths of print is that it can provide more detail, one can draw one's own conclusions about what the newspaper business should or should not have done in listening to its own customers and what they have said they wanted, given that despite the inroads of online journalism, the most depended-upon and most trusted source of journalism, even among people 18-30, is television.

"Koehler resolved to make something big out of Channel 6.

"At the time, the typical half-hour television news program—local and national—consisted of eight to 10 stories, with the anchor and reporters spending a lot of that time talking about what had happened that day. ... If Channel 6 was going to rise above a 'poor third,' Koehler reasoned, he and his team had to make some dramatic changes, do things differently—very differently.

"The brainstorming came up with two propositions: (1) more and shorter stories, an increase from about 10 to 20 or more, and (2) more pictures and less talk. Before launching the new and improved Channel 6 news, Koehler wanted to test out what was, at the time, a very radical formula for presenting the news. He called on Frank N. Magid.

"Magid had been a college professor of social science who was building a consulting firm specializing in the communications industry. Today, the firm has grown to more than 300 employees. 'At the time,' Magid recalled recently, 'Channel 6 was really on the bottom of the rankings. They wanted an honest appraisal of what drew people to various stations. More specifically, they wanted to know what would be more meaningful and attractive to the population, so they would be able to increase their share of the audience. ...

"'It is important to understand that, while many stations’ management gives lip service to wanting to change and do things that are new, when push comes to shove, they don’t change, because they fear what is new. They aren’t willing to take the chances George was willing to take. ...'

"Magid and his team tested various formats on Philadelphia audiences. 'What the people said they wanted,' he discovered, 'was broader coverage. Well, you can’t have broader coverage with the same number of minutes, so what you have to do is increase the number of stories.' What the people preferred, then, was what Koehler and associates were proposing: more and shorter stories.

"What Magid and Koehler found out was that television viewers in the Philadelphia region wanted more news but less detail. 'Much less detail, actually,' said Koehler. “Just enough to tell the story. We would give the important elements and not a lot of background, unless, of course, for major stories, when we would give those stories much more time and information.' The new format, then, was 'lots of stories and lots of pictures. Not talking heads, but as much action as we could get into the program.'...

"Sometime later, Koehler composed an eight-page, single-spaced treatise titled How You Do the News in which he outlined and then elaborated upon 'the basic principles of the Action News format as it was first developed and as it still remains in effect.' ... Koehler closed the 'book' by observing 'most people will look at the newscast in which they feel they’re getting the most for the investment they have made…in information, in friendship, in action.' He also reminded everyone about Frank Magid’s parting line before he left as consultant: 'You don’t lose viewers; you drive them away.'"

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