The Business Side of TV News

TV news industry veteran and consultant John Altenbern joins Tim to talk about the business of TV news. John runs a consulting firm named Crawford Johnson & Northcott, Inc., that specializes in helping TV news operations get better ratings and grow their audiences. John tells what it takes for TV news operations to compete against each other for your time and attention. He gives a glimpse of some of the methods and strategies those news directors, producers and reporters use to keep us tuned in.

In 2016, the Pew research organization published a report that told us that more Americans get their news from local TV stations than any other place.

Pew reported that back in 2007, that 29.3 million people watched their local evening newscasts, but by 2015, the total was roughly 22.8 million. A big drop of over 6 million, but still the most sizable audience for news consumption.

In this episode, we explore some of the reasons why the change, and also why local TV news remains so dominant in the media landscape.

In 1965, Westinghouse Broadcasting, known as Group W, owned a TV station in Philadelphia, KYW-TV. The station was a CBS network affiliate.

Until this time, the stereotypical newscast looked like this. A curmudgeonly man sat at a desk delivering headlines as though it was ripped right off of a wire service ticker tape machine. He’d deliver the news with all the seriousness of Walter Cronkite. In many cases, the producers would even pipe in background audio of the tickety tap of typewriters and wire machines as the anchor man delivered the day’s news.

But news director Al Primo had a different idea. He hired field reporters and sent them out into the city to get the news, and then film their reports from the field. (Yes, they used film cameras, not video cameras).

He diversified the news team, adding women and minorities, and he instructed his team to engage in more relaxed conversation in between the delivery of those serious news stories. He called it Happy Talk.

If you tuned into KYW back then, you’d see the news anchors walking into their places on the set in a hurry, scripts in hand, as though they were working right up until air time to bring you the latest news.

He even gave his approach to news a brand. He called it Eyewitness News.

On the other side of town, WPVI-TV responded to the challenge. News director Mel Kampmann gave his viewers a different brand. Rather than happy talk, he focused on short news clips, and nothing but hard, fast news. The pace of the stories was relentless, giving viewers the idea that if they changed the channel, or even left the room, they might miss something.

Mel branded his approach to the news as well. He called his style Action News.

In this episode, John gets into detail on just how the business of TV news works and why.


About this Episode’s Guest John Altenbern

John Altenbern is President of Crawford Johnson & Northcott, Inc., – or CJ&N – an Iowa-based media market research and consulting company. For the past 30 years, he has worked with media executives and newsrooms around the country to help them achieve ratings and audience success.

John is a graduate of the University of Iowa, with degrees in Journalism and Political Science. As a Phi Beta Kappa member, he also holds an MBA from Iowa, and is a past-chairman of the Iowa Journalism School’s professional advisory board. In addition, he has served as an adjunct journalism instructor.

He worked for local television newsrooms both in on-air and management positions in Orlando, Tampa, Minneapolis and Cedar Rapids, Iowa before beginning his consulting career in 1990. An Emmy award winning writer, John has worked to train mid-career journalists in dozens of newsrooms across the country and around the world. He serves as a trusted advisor to many media executives across the local media industry, and he is a frequent presenter at industry conferences and to leaders of many of the country’s largest media companies.