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Establishing a Regional Identity: Does Local Television Have a Role?

By Jock O’Connell

This article was written for Comstock's Business magazine in 2002.

“Many of the issues essential to improving our quality of life cannot be achieved by communities, cities, or counties acting alone.“

That observation from a recent report from the Capital Region Institute, a policy research cooperative drawing on the talents of the Sacramento area’s universities and colleges, would doubtless find most of us nodding in agreement. Even if we loathe the notion of regional government, we can see ample virtue of more cooperation and coordination in dealing with those transportation, air and water quality, economic development, and land use issues that affect the entire Capital Region.

Ironically, though, such good sense has evidently not deterred the region’s residents from further subdividing the political landscape by steadily incorporating new cities and special districts. In the hopes of offsetting the impulses that would fragment the region, a variety of civic organizations have sought to foster a keener public awareness of just how tightly the region’s social and economic fabric has been weaving itself into a single piece. Their hope, of course, is that such awareness will inspire our municipal and county governments to behave less fractiously on matters that involve the entire region.

But how, exactly, do you coax people to define themselves not merely as homeowners in Davis or Roseville or apartment dwellers in Midtown Sacramento or Citrus Heights but as citizens of a much larger community? Strategies vary, but most proposals inevitably expect the local media to play a crucial role by providing more frequent and extensive coverage of regional issues.

That may sound like an excellent idea, at least on paper. Yet it is not paper (or even newsprint) that is the primary source of news and information for two-thirds of the population. Instead, local television news supplies most of us with much of what we know about our community and the world. As a result, any expectation that local media can play a significant role in instilling a broader sense of community begs the question: are Sacramento’s local television stations up to the challenge?

The answer is not encouraging.

One immediate difficulty stems from a geographical mismatch between the boundaries of the Capital Region and the local television media market, which sprawls beyond the six-county Capital Region to include San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Solano Counties. So if local TV news coverage is even inadvertently nurturing a more regional sense of community among viewers, it’s not the same regional community Capital Region activists have in mind.

Then there are the usual complaints about quality and content that have long haunted local TV news programs. (In one especially nasty rebuke, the Rocky Mountain Media Watch petitioned the Federal Trade Commission in May 2001 to declare advertisements promoting local news programs on four of Denver’s stations as “false and deceptive.” The group argued that “by any reasonable standard, the entertainment-oriented content of the local TV news programs cannot be considered news.”)

That charge certainly resonates here in Sacramento. Indeed, it says much about of the nature of local TV news that the area’s most recognizable public official is not a mayor or city councillor or country supervisor or even a congressman but a fellow named John McGinniss, the ubiquitous spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office.

Here (as elsewhere nationally) TV news coverage is distorted not so much by the “if it bleeds, it leads” credo, but by the enormous economic pressure to justify the millions of dollars stations have invested in such trophy assets as helicopters, satellite trucks, skycams, and Doppler radar. Reports of mayhem and violence take precedence over more substantive news simply because shootings, fires, and car chases more easily lend themselves to the needs and capabilities of a visual media. Weather, for example, receives such exhaustive attention precisely because so many of a station’s resources can be deployed to cover it. By contrast, public affairs issues that cannot be linked with fatal accidents or violent confrontations normally receive much less airtime than fluff stories typically featuring cute animals or heroic youngsters in some far-off locale.

Kevin Eckery, the former executive director of Valley Vision, offers a particularly cogent explanation why local television news disappoints many civic activists. “Local television stations,” Eckery complains, “may cover things that happen in the region, but they don't cover regional issues for the same reason they don't cover politics [because] civics stories are harder to write and they're harder to write with pictures.”

Lamenting the indifferent quality of local television news may soon be a moot sport, though. For everything we know about the television industry is changing very rapidly and dramatically. And it is not just that how and what we watch will be transformed. So, too, will be the fundamental economic equation upon which the television industry has operated since its inception.

Anyone disappointed with local TV news can easily find alternative sources of information. As a report on local TV news by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research group affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, points out: “Viewers are beginning to abandon [local TV news programs], especially for the Internet, much as network news began to lose audience more than a decade ago with the advent of cable.”

Sacramento’s television stations have responded to the Internet threat by creating their own websites and by experimenting with ways for linking these sites with their regular news broadcasts. (Yet, if the Internet is to become the central source to which increasing numbers of us will turn for news and information about local and regional developments, the Sacramento Bee would appear to enjoy a decided edge. With its much larger staff of reporters, many of whom have years of experience covering the same beat, the Capital Region’s principal daily newspaper needs to hire only a team of video camera operators to establish as the region’s dominant news and information website.)

The Internet is not the only peril facing television broadcasting. Digital recording devices and the accompanying software will enable viewers to search out and record whatever programs they wish, regardless of which network or channel is airing them. These systems -- currently marketed under such names as ReplayTV and TiVo — invite viewers to, in effect, create their own television stations.

For local television executives, the new technology is disturbing because digital video recorders could circumvent their stations’ customary role in the delivery of network and syndicated programming, leaving them stranded not unlike once thriving rural towns that were by-passed by the Interstate highways.

Even more far-reaching than their economic consequences, the Internet and digital recording devices may be their social and political impact. As KVIE general manager David Hosely put the question while being interviewed for this article: “When viewers can watch whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of where the programs originate, how do you define the community your station seeks to serve?”

Hosely’s question goes to the heart of efforts to foster a regional identity in the Capital Region. The extraordinary reach of the new technologies will enable individuals to participate in virtual communities that transcend geography. When technology enables us to communicate cheaply and instantly with like-minded people anywhere on the planet, the result is a powerful centrifugal force straining the cohesion of physical communities.

Copyright © 2002 By J. A. O’Connell

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