TV news judgment vs. ratings: who wins?

My friend Jeff Gauger takes note that, on their websites, neither WFMY nor WGHP mention the omission of WXII from the channels offered by Time Warner Cable. I don’t know whether the anchors reported it on the newscasts yesterday or this morning, but I suspect not.

In a conversation about an unrelated topic a few years ago, a local anchor told me why they wouldn’t: “We don’t want to give viewers any reason to change the channel.” The thinking is that if an anchor talks about something happening at another station in the market, it’s possible — even likely — the typical viewer will switch over to that station to see what’s happening. Bad for the ratings.

(In this case, what is happening is that Time Warner has given us the NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. After watching a snippet of that station’s news, I switched away. Why Wilkes-Barre, as opposed to Charlotte or Raleigh? A Facebook friend told me that TW sent out a message explaining: Certain rules limit our ability to import TV signals from other cities. We have done so where those rules currently permit it.)

Interestingly, News 14 Carolinas — TW’s station — didn’t have a problem reporting what was happening. I bet WXII didn’t either, although I don’t know because I don’t have a TV with an antenna.

Back to the issue over TV ratings vs. news that viewers might find interesting and helpful. I understand the reluctance of competing TV stations to skip over the information about WXII, if they actually did. TV news is fighting the same battle for viewers that newspapers are for readers. Appointment television is becoming a thing of the past, and the latest Gallup Poll results showing a decline in confidence in TV news are troubling. But — and you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you? — that thinking reveals a terrible blind spot. If you want to be the news leader, to be the most trusted, to be the place people turn, then you have to give them information that’s valued and useful. Otherwise, you force people to do just what Jeff said: Go elsewhere for the news. Why would you want them to do that? In this case, people would have switched to where WXII used to be, seen a totally irrelevant newscast and switched right back, firm in their belief that WGHP or WFMY was serving their needs better.

In addition, the idea that people don’t channel surf during newscasts harkens back to the pre-remote days. I watch a newscast until it hits a story that I know already or doesn’t interest me and I switch. Or I’ll hunt for the weather forecast and stop at whichever station has it, although I don’t stop at WXII’s spot on the dial now because the weather in Wilkes-Barre isn’t helpful.

All that said, if WGHP or WFMY reported the WXII troubles on the air, then never mind.

I believe this will be resolved soon because those WXII viewers are getting used to turning to WGHP, WFMY and News 14 for their news. I can’t imagine that WXII wants new viewing habits to take hold.