Add local TV to the list of those whose death rumors have been greatly exaggerated.
The past year has not been a kind one for local TV stations: They were expected to end 2009 with lower-than-expected revenues of $15.6 billion, off 22.4% from 2008, had continued to lose influence among their affiliated networks and were subjected to apocalyptic headlines such as "Local TV Stations Face a Fuzzy Future" (that one came from The Wall Street Journal).
But there is a glimmer of hope for this beleaguered media channel. NBC's decision to move Jay Leno back to his late-night spot could be seen as a huge victory for the network's local TV affiliates, who detested the programming strategy as Mr. Leno's tanking ratings delivered smaller audiences to their evening news broadcasts. Some stations' local news broadcasts were off 30% -- and according to research firm Harmelin Media, three more months of the Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. would have cost NBC's 210 local affiliates a collective $22 million. But the affiliates revolted and, in a move that doesn't come along often these days, the network listened to them and reacted.
Meanwhile, Evan Tracey from TNS Media Intelligence estimates another bright spot is on the horizon in the form of the midterm elections. Ticked off voters, competitive congressional races and crucial gubernatorial contests in states such as California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York could help inject more than $2.6 billion dollars of political ad spending into the market, the majority of it going to local TV. "The high stakes of these midterms and the various special interests with skin in the game will likely create plenty of money to spend on ads," Mr. Tracey wrote last week in Ad Age.
Local TV stations are arguably better equipped to survive the media transformation than their newspaper counterparts and have an opportunity to reinvest this windfall of good fortune into their future. They should concentrate on broadening their distribution to the places people will be watching in the future -- according to Frank Magid Associates, more than half of U.S. mobile phone subscribers want to tune into live, local news broadcasts on their small screen -- and they should think of themselves as community hubs and useful digital experiences, taking advantage of the unique asset only they offer: a mass of engaged viewers seeking great, local video content.