Does Q13 really need an “Imaginator?”

Of all the things that have driven TV news viewers away, the Tribune Company seems to think it’s the anchors and reporters. Q13

Mike McGuff’s Houston-based media blog reports that starting with KIAH-TV in Houston, this fall Tribune is going to roll out something called “NewsFix” – which will be a series of “fast paced” photo essays strung together into some sort of a news product.

The station is searching for yet another brand of guru who will come in and fix everything. Instead of a long string of bumbling News Directors or consultants, they’re looking for an “Executive Producer and Imaginator.” I’m sure finding an “Imaginator” will fix their product. Good grief. I wouldn’t be caught dead with “Imaginator” on my business card.

The people at KCPQ shouldn’t be sweating about this quite yet. It’s an experiment that will be given a little time to fail before management decides whether further ratings erosion is worth the cost savings. Remember, it’s not about the ratings – it’s about the margins. A station pulling a 1 can be much more profitable than a station pulling a 12 depending on the cost structure.

It’s also important to note that while KIAH is a ratings laggard, Houston is a top ten market. So this is something Tribune is apparently dead serious about and not afraid to try in a place larger than Seattle/Tacoma. As is the case in this market, albeit to a lesser extent I think, KIAH offers a “smaller” product against a couple of mega-blowtorch TV news operations in Houston. I agree that differentiation is going to be crucial to eek out some success, but if they think an unguided and personality-free collection of photo essays is going to make them more competitive – I think they’re dreaming.

This all ties into the Holy Grail of TV news: Finding a way to trump the audience’s connection people with a more powerful connection to content. Not gonna’ happen. It’s a strong combination of the two that makes for a winning formula – and decades of research proves it.

What’s even more interesting about the Tribune strategy is that they’ll be forgoing reporters too, putting multi-media journalists – or in this case probably photographers – into the field to do photo essays.

Photo essays in TV have traditionally been pieces where the subjects tell their own story – they provide the narration or the “track” to bring the story together. It’s a nice style that can work sometimes, but making it the stylistic backbone of an entire news operation is going to be challenging and certainly raises some questions about how limited the type of “news” KIAH will be able to cover.

Instead of hiring a freakin’ Imaginator, stations like KIAH have to find an open brand or psychographic space in their market that they can exploit. I’m all for taking some chances about how the news is presented, and breaking out with a fresh “frame” for a given station’s product – but taking the human element out of it is a recipe for more, if that’s even possible, failure.