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Stations: Big Money, Big Plans

WGAL in Lancaster, Pa., has chosen unique settings for political debates in the past, but the one airing this week may take the cake. The Hearst Television station taped the faceoff between three Congressional hopefuls at a local grocery store, figuring the setting would provide a catchier backdrop than the usual podiums in some stuffy hall. The various aisles at Kenny’s Markets in Gettysburg serve as thematic backdrops for the debate: a discussion on healthcare was held in the health & beauty aids section; agricultural issues dear to rural Pennsylvania bounced around the dairy aisle; and a spirited talk about earmarks was held, naturally, where one finds pork products.

With viewers often fatigued this time of year by the ubiquitous drone of political ads, the robotic regurgitation of candidates’ talking points and the car alarm-esque partisan shouting on cable, WGAL News Director Dan O’Donnell has made political coverage stand out with debates at backyard BBQs and a Habitat for Humanity house the Congressional aspirants had spent the day building together. O’Donnell’s aim is to separate the candidates from their scripts and handlers and give viewers a truer representation of what they stand for.

Traditional debates—blue suits, beige podiums—can be “deadly dull to the brain,” O’Donnell says. “We have to find a better way to tell the story and make it a more watchable presentation.”

All politics is local, as the adage goes, and Tip O’Neill’s shopworn utterance has never rung truer. Local television is better equipped than ever for covering the political horse races that dominate the news cycle every other autumn. Stations are employing a widening array of social media like Facebook and Twitter and cutting-edge technology such as Skype, along with new thinking to shake up old formats and make their coverage pop—and in the process ensure that an increasingly engaged electorate is up to their eyeballs in expert information.

“[Traditional] debates are blah, blah, blah, blah, unless you find ways to engage the consumer,” says Steve Schwaid, director of news and digital content for WGCL Atlanta. “Our goal is to figure out how to separate the junk between the user, viewer, ‘viewser’ and the candidate.”

A Gusty Windfall
The economic windfall stations receive from election season can’t be understated, and a rosy picture got even more lush when the Supreme Court rendered its landmark Citizens United ruling earlier this year. SNL/Kagan forecasted $2.5 billion in station political revenue for 2010, a whopping 25% gain over what the stations saw four years ago. At the TVB forecasting conference in September, Kantar Media’s CMAG President Evan Tracey called the election landscape “the most competitive environment I’ve ever seen.” Weeks later, reports said spending could reach $3 billion.

With this abundant revenue comes the responsibility to keep viewers informed and enlightened. And station newsroom chiefs say the tools at their disposal give them unparalleled newsgathering capability—and provide viewers with an expanded role in the coverage. Stations are using every arrow in their multi-platform quiver, from extended debate coverage on a multicast channel to featuring interactive polling on their Websites.

LIN Media has launched the “OnPolitix” section of its station sites, which the company says offers the deeper-dive political reporting more typically associated with newspapers. WGAL is using Skype to beam candidates in front of a focus group of community members armed with pointed questions. Meredith’s KPHO Phoenix equipped reporters with Droid X smartphones to shoot photos and video from the parties and party headquarters on Primary Day and the Election Day that will follow, in an effort to give viewers a behind-the-scenes perspective on the races. WGCL’s reporters use Facebook and Twitter not only to garner news tips, but to ask the public which questions they should be posing to the candidates, and gauge how much interest there is in topics such as Candidate A’s personal-life misstep.

WBNS Columbus invited candidates from some 30 races into the station to cut five-minute YouTube videos about themselves and their platforms, and solicited viewer questions via Facebook and Twitter. “It’s really about what the people want to know, not what us as journalists want to know,” says President/General Manager Tom Griesdorn. (To be sure, viewers posing questions to candidates via YouTube is not a new concept; CNN and YouTube joined forces on a series of presidential debates in 2007.)

Some see a parallel between the mounting frustrations among the public with their elected leaders, evidenced by grassroots political movements such as the Tea Party, and an increased desire to be more involved in the political process. Viewers don’t want to simply be told who the candidates are and what their beliefs are by the local political reporter—they want a say in the reporting process, too.

“Viewers are in some ways more connected to the process than they were a few years ago,” says Hearst TV VP of News Candy Altman, who oversees the 61 debates that help make up the 175 hours of political coverage Hearst stations will air this year. “We think that means opportunity for us.”

Up for Debates
Pennsylvania’s WGAL isn’t the only station expanding and enhancing the tried-and-true debate setting and formula. WBNS has been producing debates in hi-def, which Griesdorn says “ups the ante” in DMA No. 34. Univision produced Florida gubernatorial and senatorial and California gubernatorial debates in Spanish, with the candidates’ responses translated for viewers. The bouts were streamed on and aired on affiliates statewide; the Oct. 2 showdown between California governor hopefuls Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown drew 150,000 viewers in Los Angeles alone.

Univision may partner on more Spanish-first debates in Texas, Illinois and New York in the coming weeks. “We’ve made a lot of history the last couple of months,” says Univision President of News Alina Falcon.

WTVF Nashville also took candidates’ messages directly to an underserved segment of the population. For the first time in the station’s history, it hosted a debate a 90-minute drive outside the Tennessee capital, in rural Cookeville. It was a chore for the WTVF crew to schlep to the outskirts, but President/General Manager Debbie Turner says the station was intent on making sure the whole of the market got a close-up look at the Republican candidates for governor. “It really served the interests of a different group of people,” she says. (Turner adds she held her breath every time a viewer posed a question via YouTube, but the setup worked "flawlessly.)

Getting Viewers Prepared

WGAL’s so-called “Grocery Store Debate” will pepper the station’s newscasts Oct. 20, and news director O’Donnell hopes the quirky setting will keep viewers who may be nearing their ! ll of political coverage from tuning out. Better-informed viewers, he believes, make for a better democracy.

“The litmus test for whether we’ve succeeded in doing journalism in a different way, and not just doing shtick, is if issues come up that we wouldn’t have been smart enough to cover,” O’Donnell says. “We hope [viewers] pay attention and learn from it and take that knowledge into the voting booth with them.”

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