A News 8 Report Card: A Solid C, Potential to Burn
News 8 Austin has had a semester to get its act together. Now it's time for a report card. News 8, as all Austin cable TV subscribers surely know by now, is the 24-hour local news channel owned and operated by Time Warner Cable, Austin's cable provider. Broadcasting out of a brand-new, all-digital studio at 17th & Colorado, the station uses a format similar to that of another Time Warner property, CNN Headline News: The broadcast day is divided up into hourlong news "wheels," which are continually updated throughout the day. News 8 began broadcasting at the end of last September. The station is one of a number of similar operations springing up across the nation. It's the fifth such station in the Time Warner stable, preceded by local all-news channels in New York City, Rochester, Tampa, and Orlando, with more proposed for Houston, Milwaukee, and Ohio. Elsewhere in Texas, broadcasting and newspaper giant Belo Corporation started Texas Cable News (TXCN) just over a year ago in Dallas, which differs in that it has more of a statewide focus.
News 8 came to town with a big promise -- to raise the standard of television journalism in Austin and to revive the notion of public service broadcasting.
The potential is certainly there. Time Warner officials promised that, because it is both a service to existing subscribers and an incentive to lure new ones, News 8 doesn't have to be advertiser-driven -- most of its financing comes from Time Warner's other revenues. Additionally, because there is no prime-time network programming on the station, News 8 reporters won't feel pressured to perform that most odious of TV news gimmicks, the promotional tie-in -- the practice whereby news programs use airtime to promote their network's prime-time fare, and present it as news. The worst example we've seen of this locally was K-EYE's weeklong special report on magic tricks in 1997, which the station produced to promote a CBS magic show.
Granted, raising the bar in local TV news isn't exactly a lofty goal -- it's more like stepping over a curb than the Olympic high jump. In most places, TV news hardly even deserves to be called journalism. This point ought to be self-evident, but it is also well-documented in studies by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch (RMMW), the Denver-based media activist group (see their work at http://www.bigmedia.org). However, it actually seems to be working at the new local cable stations. RMMW's most recent study, which focused on 21 of these channels, said that "[a] content analysis of 21 local-news-on-cable stations reveals [that the] programs contain 20% more news, 15% less advertising, and less violent content and triviality than most over-the-air local news stations."
But that study was published two weeks before News 8 debuted. So how is the Austin version doing?
"Media Clips" has been watching News 8 quite a bit since it came on the air. Like the Chronicle's restaurant reviewers, we gave them a few months to get their act together. And they needed it: The first month saw numerous technical gaffes as the new staff needed time to get comfortable with News 8's fancy-schmancy studio. And the staff was very green -- we were particularly amused by the News 8 reporter who showed up at City Council chambers and began asking other reporters if they were there to cover the AISD school board meeting. The greenness problem is improving, although a Jan. 11 report did identify a well-known former City Council member as "Bridget Shay."
Now that the probation is over, though, we spent a week (Jan. 6-12) taping News 8's programming and scrutinizing it closely, and compared it to what other Austin stations were doing that same week.
News 8 has certainly delivered on its promise of being free from commercial restraints. A typical one-hour news wheel features nine to 10 minutes of commercials -- an absolutely astounding number considering that the other stations averaged 11-12 minutes of ads in their half-hour programs. This means News 8 only gives up about 15% of its airtime to commercials, while the other stations spend about 35% of their time doing so.
So what is News 8 doing with that extra time? Content-wise, the results are mixed. On the upside, News 8 is not sports-obsessed. A combination of a sports trivia question, the actual sports report, and an occasional 20-second item called "Longhorn Scoreboard" takes between four and six minutes. That's a minute or two more than the other stations devote to athletics, but since the sports report only comes once an hour, the actual percentage of airtime is about 75% of what the other stations spend on sports coverage. And News 8's sports reporters make good use of the time -- we have been impressed at how, on non-football days, they actually cover the many talented athletes in "minor" sports (such as UT women's volleyball) rather than bore us with minutiae on how Mack Brown spends his Tuesdays.
Another plus is the one-anchor format. This eliminates that inane gabbing between segments that generally takes a percent or two of other stations' airtime (no small length of time on a half-hour show, where news pieces frequently are less than 30 seconds).
And of course, being on the air 24 hours a day means that reporters can cut in with breaking news at a moment's notice, and news directors don't have to anguish over whether the event in question is worth cutting into prime-time programming.
On the downside, News 8 has just too damn much weather. Weathercasts come up every 10 minutes and last about two minutes each. This comes out to fully 20% of the broadcast, substantially more than the 10-15% seen on other stations -- and they were already overdoing it.
We understand what News 8's programmers are thinking -- by its nature, the format is not meant for continuous viewing, but for grabbing the day's news when you need it, such as over your morning cup of coffee before you dash off to work. They want to make sure you get your forecast in that short span. Still, it's an absurd amount of time in a state where the weather is dry and hot pretty much all of the time. Perhaps every 15 minutes might be better spacing.
And regrettably, News 8 is not without fluff. The most annoying is a daily feature called "Web Sightings," where staffers highlight a Web site they like. Come on, hasn't the novelty of Web surfing worn off by now? Kill this unnecessary waste of airtime, please, and fill the time with more hard news. We also caught weekly segments on home improvement tips, child-rearing, and fashion that struck us as unneeded copies of similar features on other channels. We can get this advice from other sources -- please, just give us news.
So how does the actual news content stack up against the competition? Frankly, we're having trouble noticing a difference. In terms of analysis of the news, News 8 provides about as cursory a job as the rest. In terms of time spent on news, News 8 easily gets above 50%, compared to around 40% for the other stations. However, viewers are not necessarily getting more news -- at the half-hour mark, News 8 re-airs the top stories for all the people who may have just finished watching a 30-minute program on another station.
The station also made big promises to have a conservative approach to covering violent crime and other mayhem, which other stations often play up to absurdity. Perhaps this was a bad week to judge -- there were numerous examples of mayhem for the station to cover, including a pair of apartment fires and a hotel fire, some juvenile prankster setting off homemade chemical bombs in North Austin, and the pipe bomb found at Blanco High School, plus several bank robberies and a restaurant robbery. While "Media Clips" would normally find this much mayhem coverage appalling, most of these stories were actually worth reporting, due to the number of people affected in the fires and in Blanco, and the fact that the suspects are still at large in some of the robberies. What generally spikes up the percentage of time spent on violence is reporting on isolated instances of crime that don't affect the broader population, but -- surprisingly in the case of Fox-7, normally one of the worst offenders -- the stations were all pretty restrained on that front this week.
On coverage of elections and other public affairs, News 8 was pretty much on par with other stations: nothing too in-depth, but competently handled. All the stations had respectable reports on the Longhorn Pipeline protests and the DPS officer suspensions, but mere sound-bite clips of the presidential debates. On the national front, News 8 wasted viewers' time one night with a 30-second clip on the shooting of a Detroit cop (tragic, but hardly relevant to Austin); but on the local front, they pleasantly surprised us with a piece on how some landowners in Southwest Austin were selling development rights to the city of Austin to protect the Edwards Aquifer, instead of selling out to builders.
So the final grade? Let's give them a high "C" -- not necessarily any better than Austin's other news teams, but certainly not the worst, either. The stories could stand to be more in-depth -- News 8 should look to public broadcasters for examples, and then try to translate that to local news. Less weather. Cut out any traces of fluff -- Austin's population is literate and thoughtful enough that they can do without it.
But unlike the mediocre student that you might just write off as hopeless, News 8 has potential to burn, purely because of its unusual format -- potential which other stations will never have unless they are willing to expand their news time and develop more of a public service commitment. The enormous time hole created by running fewer ads and hourlong programs gives substantial room for much more coverage of public affairs.
But the best thing in News 8's favor is the constant availability. At the risk of making this sound like an endorsement, News 8 has become my favorite source of local TV news. Why? Just because it's always on -- I can get it when it's convenient for me, rather than when it's convenient for the networks.
That alone gives News 8 an edge on the rest of the class -- now, will they be merely content with a passing grade, or can they take advantage of the tools they have and become an A student?
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