TERENCE SMITH: What do you think of this experiment at WBBM?
DEBORAH POTTER: I think it's exciting. I think it's really different. At first I thought, well, you know, this is a classic case of television trying something new by changing to a one-anchor format. Well, it's a lot more than that. They have really radically reinvented what a newscast can look like, and it's substantially different.
TERENCE SMITH: The initial ratings have not gone up dramatically. How do you read that?
DEBORAH POTTER: I read that as expected. I mean, I don't think that people change habits overnight, and BBM has a deep hole to crawl out of. They had gone tabloid and lost a lot of viewers, and it's going to take them time to say come back.
They're also going about it in an interesting way. This is the only show that's different on this station, so all the other newscasts look like all the other newscasts in town. And in that respect, they're taking an interesting risk. They are putting on something quite different, but only once a day. So I think that also will give them a tougher road in terms of attracting viewers, because people have to accommodate--what time is it, what station am I watching, all of that. And viewers are slow to change.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any sense of how the competition has responded, if at all?
DEBORAH POTTER: Well, I think they scoff, frankly, because they're not seeing numbers change, and that's the bottom line. ...Even the people at WBBM will tell you, the bottom line is what's going to determine whether this is a success or not. Viewers have to like it. They have to come to it, and they have to stay with it.
And I think as long as the other stations don't feel their numbers being pinched, they're going to say, "Well, that's a nice experiment, but not affecting us."
TERENCE SMITH: There's a noticeable spartan look to the broadcast.
DEBORAH POTTER: Yes. I think that's putting it politely. It's, yeah, austere. And I think that's deliberate, because they've decided that they're not going to spend a lot on bells and whistles, and you can tell from the get-go, from the sound of it, you know, no theme music. The graphics are fairly simple. They're not spending a lot of money on that, and in part, I think that's a deliberate way of saying, "Hey, we think that the news in this newscast is what's important, not all the dressing and window dressing, and you know, fancy stuff around the outside."
TERENCE SMITH: Most nights it includes an interview, a live interview, often on politics. Is a big-city audience ready for that sort of thing at 10 o'clock at night?
DEBORAH POTTER: That's a really interesting question, because at 10 o'clock at night is the key here. That's a newscast that in many parts of the country has transformed itself into a much faster paced kind of a program. At 10 o'clock you have a lot of stations doing 10 minutes of solid news with lots of headlines and lots of quick 20-second voice-overs, and let's get it to them fast, because, by golly, that's the end of a night, and they're ready to go to bed, 10 or 11, depending on your time zone. So this--just the pacing of this newscast, the slowness of it is very different for a 10 o'clock newscast or 11 o'clock newscast. And I don't know, and I don't think anybody can tell you, whether any particular audience is ready for it. What I can say is, if they're looking for it, this is about the only place they're going to find it.
TERENCE SMITH: They have also done something different. They have built the broadcast around a single--that is, she's on the set singly--a 51-year-old woman anchor in an era when that's not very common. What's your thought on that
DEBORAH POTTER: Well, I think it's great, of course, as a female of about the same age. I think it's a wonderful thing.
That's what I sort of thought originally would have been so unique about this broadcast. It's certainly only one of the many things that's unique about the broadcast. We have seen this tried maybe one other place. I don't think it's sweeping the country by storm, but if it did, that would be revolutionary.
TERENCE SMITH: She delighted in an early promotional phrase, "Old chicks rule."
DEBORAH POTTER: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: But in fact, the station decided not to use it, a little too much for them, I guess.
DEBORAH POTTER: I suppose.
TERENCE SMITH: But there's a message there. What is it?
DEBORAH POTTER: I think the message is that, you know, women in particular are the building audience, particularly women of that age --they're the heart of the news audience, and I think that in some ways it's promotionally very smart to highlight her and who she is, and how old she is, frankly, to try to appeal to those women who have disposable income in many cases, and who are loyal viewers.
TERENCE SMITH: How typical is this--or how atypical is this experiment when you look, as you do, at local news around the country?
DEBORAH POTTER: I think it's atypical because it really is a radical transformation. It's not nibbling around the edges. They're reduced weather to a minute. They've allowed sports to move around during the half hour. If it's a big story, it's high up in the newscast. It may not appear until the very bottom. It's not formatted in the way that most newscasts are formatted.
Yes, there have been some variations on the theme at other places, but I have to say, from what I've been able to see, this is one of the few where they've taken the entire newscast and said, "It's going to be different top to bottom." It's not just going to have one longer format piece--and that's been done in a lot of different places--or it's not just going to have, you know, a headline section instead of national news. This is really different top to bottom.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there any trend here that you know or have observed in those stations that have tried either longer stories or a newsier format?
DEBORAH POTTER: I think what I've seen is that the other stations in town begin to copy them, so that, for instance, in Minneapolis, where there have been, you know, fixtures of long-form programming on one of the stations, now they're all doing it. They all do an extended segment at 10 o'clock, because it was clear to them that the audience that they had in that market at that time of night was expecting it, so they're all doing it.
There are up-tempo newscasts being put up against up-tempo newscasts, which, to be honest, I don't think that's the smartest way to counter-program. You might want to offer something different. That's what they've done at WBBM, they've decided they're going to offer something totally different from what the others are doing. And I have to say that what's intriguing about this is that people all over the country are exchanging e-mail, saying, "Did you see this?" And they are sending each other the numbers when they come out on WBBM, "Look, they did well in this demographic group", because there's a secret sort of cheering section going on in newsrooms around the country. I think there are a lot of journalists would like to see this succeed.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you had a chance to look at those numbers in any detail, and do you see any silver linings?
DEBORAH POTTER: I think what you'll hear from them, the silver lining, if there is one, is that their demographics are better at 10. They're drawing an audience of younger viewers with more--supposedly with more disposable income. Those are the viewers that advertisers want, so in a way, there may not be a huge numbers difference between before this newscast and after this newscast, but the types of people within those numbers are of more benefit financially to the station. That's the silver lining.
TERENCE SMITH: More generally, when you look at local news, which you do, what can you tell us that you've observed in the last year or two, if there are any trends, discernible trends in local news? I'm wondering how BBM fits into that, but I'm asking you more generally.
DEBORAH POTTER: Well, I think one of the trends is declining viewership, and it's taken several years for the local stations to react to that in the ways that the networks have over the last several years. The network numbers went down sooner, and the local stations were sitting back and saying, "Not our problem. Our numbers are just fine." Well, their numbers aren't just fine any more.
They're doing just fine in the mornings--that's their growth area--but at 6:00, 10:00, 11:00, these stations are starting to hurt. And so what I've been observing is a real soul searching going on in newsrooms. It's not so obvious that they're making changes on the air, but they sure are thinking about it. They're thinking about what they ought to be doing differently.
They're a little more introspective maybe than they have been, and they are trying a few things, a few different things. They're trying to reach out to their audiences in new ways that they haven't done before. There was an arrogance in television newsrooms that I know you're familiar with.
It's sort of a widely-held secret that the public isn't very smart, and we don't really need to pay much attention to them. I think that's changing. And you see little experiments. Tucson, Arizona, where a station has developed a viewer's bill of rights. They've posted it on their Internet, they promote it on their newscasts, and they're basically saying, "You have the right to expect these things of us."
They have established an ombudsman at a television station, really unusual, don't see that very often any more. So there are some things happening. There's a little bit of ferment. Is there a revolution? No, not yet. But I think people are starting to pay attention, and once again, it's all driven by the fact that viewers are leaving, so the money is too.