Dear Local News, Don't Blame Jay Leno

Differentiate Your Product First, Then Market It

By Published on .

Most Popular

Tom Denari
Tom Denari
Remember that season of "Dallas" back in the '80s that ended up being written off as a bad dream so that Patrick Duffy could get back on the show?

Well, consider Jay Leno at 10 p.m. to be TV's latest bad dream. Not for Jay, who will get to go back to his old time slot. Not for NBC, who claims Leno at 10 p.m. garnered the ratings it expected. And, certainly not Conan O'Brien, who walked away with about $35 million.

Remember, this whole situation was created because local NBC affiliates were rapidly losing late-night local news viewers. Jay's 10 p.m. time slot was truly a nightmare for these local news affiliates, not because it cost many market leaders upward of 30% of its audience, but because it exposed the weakness of local news programming. These NBC affiliates blamed Leno, complaining that Jay at 10 p.m. was a weak lead-in to their local news.

The complaints are laughable. These local news affiliates act like it's still 1975, when most people had to actually get out of their recliners to change the channel.

Maybe they should blame the lost viewers on the fact that we all have too many remote controls, and we can't figure out which is the right one. Or maybe it's actually because viewers are so ambivalent about their late local news that they aren't willing to press a couple of buttons on their remotes to change the station.

It's not Jay's fault. Local news has become a faceless commodity.

Viewers have demonstrated very little preference, as they think they can get the same product from any station's news programming.

Why should you care? This is simply another teachable moment, another brand strategy lesson: Follow the crowd at your own peril.

These local news programmers have fallen into the trap that many marketers stumble into. They look at marketing as the promotion of their product, instead of evaluating their target audience and crafting a product that will differentiate itself from the others.

Back in the glory days of local TV news, it was easy. Find a calm, silver-haired anchorman. He was essentially the brand of the local news. If people liked and trusted the anchor, that's the station they would turn to.

Then, TV became more complex, with more news programming hours to fill, and more channels to compete against. One would think that this dynamic would have created an opportunity for local news stations to differentiate their product. But even as anchormen became anchorwomen, and news teams became more racially diverse, a sameness of product emerged. Each station followed the next. Man-and-woman anchor teams. Incessant coverage of house fires and crime scenes. Helicopters. Oh, and the weather. Hyperbolic coverage of weather, each with a different, but similar sounding radar system -- from Storm Cutter to MaxTrackDoppler. I'm not making these up.

If that wasn't enough, we're all familiar with the taglines, too. These stations are either "Live, Local, First," or maybe they are "On Your Side." They might even be "Getting Results."

And, we wonder why viewers are ambivalent.

Now, if you're in the local news business, you're probably annoyed right now, and might even be seething. If you're not in local news, you might be chuckling.

My advice is to stop chuckling and reflect on your own brand and products:

  • What's your category's version of "Your Local News Source"?
  • Is your brand simply following the crowd, too?
  • Do you have a clear view of your competition and target audience?
  • Do you understand them well enough to know what would make your product offering different in their eyes? What would they say?
  • Do they have a feeling about your brand? What is it? How do you know?
  • If your product is truly differentiated, are your brand's marketing and communications different than the rest of the category? Do they fit in comfortably within the category, or do they create attention by going against the grain?
  • Are you relying too much on your version of Doppler Radar?

These can be difficult questions to answer truthfully. You might not know. It might even be difficult and expensive to find out. But, you must.

If you don't, your brand is at risk of becoming something people won't even change the channel for.

And you can't even blame Jay.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
In this article: