Facebook Faces Off With Broadcast TV

WHY THIS MATTERS: With “Today In,” Facebook takes aim at broadcast TV’s most profitable content segment: local news.

The edge is coming for local TV news, historically the most profitable programming segment for stations.

That’s at least the clear signal being sent by social-media powerhouse Facebook, which is looking to satisfy the appetite for local and regional news while keeping folks on their devices and computers.

The move comes in the wake of surveys finding TV stations are still the top destination for such local news, including lifesaving emergency information. Facebook is eyeing both of those categories.

In a blog post, Facebook product manager for local news and community information Anthea Watson Strong rolled out the blueprint.

“We’re making it easier for people to find news and information from their local towns and cities,” she said. Facebook will launch a new section added to its “Today In” page, as well as testing the addition of local alerts from “relevant government pages.”

Today In is already up and running in 400 U.S. cities, but Facebook says it is targeting “news deserts,” which it says are places that have “low supply of local news and community information.” It also signaled it wanted to expand its new section more broadly “soon.”

Given that local TV news is the go-to source of such local info, it isn’t surprising that Facebook research found that more than half of respondents said they wanted more local news and community info on the social media sites, news like crime reports, weather, school closings, and road closures, or put another way, some of the bread-and-butter categories for local TV news.

Clearly Facebook wants to steal that meal from local TV. It cites one Facebook user on Today In’s value, notably from Peoria, Ill., where Facebook hopes its new local news effort will play a role.

“I use [Today in Peoria] every day. That’s the first thing I do in the morning. I work a lot of hours…my phone is always on me, and it’s how I find out about everything going on in town — news, current events, everything. It’s very handy. It’s my go-to for anything and everything.”

“Local broadcasters know their markets and cover them extensively,” National Association of Broadcasters executive VP Dennis Wharton said. “That is one reason local television news is the most trusted source for news in the U.S. Enabling greater access to this valuable resource via the Facebook platform would be a big win for Facebook and their users.”

Facebook is going after broadcasters’ “first responder” mantle as well. It is currently running tests with 100 local governments and first responder pages to provide Facebook users with local emergency alerts on storms and natural disasters.

Of course, there is symbiosis in the relationship, with most stations having a Facebook presence. Two weeks ago, for example, the Alaska earthquake took TV stations off the air, but not off of Facebook, where CBS affiliate KTVA Anchorage used its page as a backup video distribution platform for relaying information about damage to the public.

Facebook’s move comes as the prevalence of bots on social media has made consumers concerned about where their news is coming from, according to a separate recent study from Pew.

Bots are computer-generated programs that post and interact on social media sites, but are increasingly hard to distinguish from humans doing the same thing.

That concern is arguably one of the reasons broadcast TV remains that top source of local news and could make it harder for Facebook to dethrone the current champ.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.