Five years ago, Peter Kohler figured he'd never get a chance to return to the job he loved best. TV editorial writing seemed as relevant as typewriter repair or turntable manufacturing.
Throughout the 1970s, Kohler cranked out editorials for WCBS-TV New York. But then came the 1980s and the Reagan deregulation revolution. Broadcasters discovered they no longer needed editorials to appease the keepers of the public-interest standard at the FCC. Most dumped their editorial writers, not exactly profit centers. Kohler was forced to find other work, first at CBS, then at Gannett.
So no one is more surprised than Kohler to find he's in the TV- editorial business again, only it's not for a broadcast station or a network. It's for Cablevision Systems, which hired him in 1995 to manage editorials for NewsChannel 12, a cable-news network serving the cable operator's metro-New York subscribers. Kohler now heads a team of five experienced journalists who write and present two or three editorials a week in each of the four regions NewsChannel 12 serves: New Jersey, the Bronx, Westchester County and Southern Connecticut. The editorials tackle local issues, often too local for the New York TV stations to report on, let alone comment on. Says Kohler: "We stick to home base here."
I wish I could say Kohler and Cablevision are heralds for a big-time revival of editorials on TV and radio stations, but they're probably not. Cablevision is likely to remain the exception. And that's too bad.
Editorials connect stations to their communities in a way that simply sending out the talent to ribbon cuttings and street fairs doesn't. And they can do some good by swaying opinion or simply by riveting attention on an issue. No one doubts the power of the medium.
Well-written and well-produced editorials delivered by a talented personality might even draw an audience. An editorial is not, by definition, dull. It can be sad or funny, moving or profound, provocative or contemplative.
It can be good television. The commentary of Eric Severeid marked the major events of his time and enthralled a legion of viewers for CBS.
And it's not like there isn't time for editorials. Your average TV newscast is at least 20% fluff. How tough would it be to cut the piece on the new diet fad or the one on Jennifer Lopez's love life and make room for a little talk about issues that will really affect the lives of your viewers.
I should also note that, while the deregulation of the 1980s removed the incentive for editorials, it also removed one of the obstacles: the fairness doctrine, the rule requiring stations to air all sides of any issue they address. That means stations may say whatever they want without having to make time available to every person in town who disagrees. Of course, like Cablevision, stations may want to make time available for some dissenting opinions.
The broadcast editorial isn't completely dead. Although only a handful of stations have fulltime editorial writers, some broadcast groups, like Hearst-Argyle, still encourage their GMs to speak out. Hearst-Argyle COO Tony Vinciquerra says editorials increase the stature of GMs and their stations: "It's an important thing for stations to do."
But, for broadcast editorials to make a real comeback, top management is going to have to put up some dollars and hire some pros. It's a matter of leadership, Kohler says. He wrote editorials at CBS because then-President Frank Stanton believed in them. "The reason we are here [at Cablevision] and growing is because people at the top believe this is important, that this is worthwhile," he says. "If you are going to try to put this down on a budget and ask what revenue does it bring in, I'm not sure you would do it."
Editorials do have some downside beside cost. When Vinciquerra was GM at KYW-TV in Philadelphia, he presented a scolding editorial based on a station story that found that city firefighters on full disability were working fulltime at other jobs. Soon after the broadcast, he recalls, he ran into several of the story's targets in a restaurant bar. "They wanted to talk about it in kind of an aggressive way."
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