Thanksgiving Day: Only One Reason to Do Local News

Whether they would admit it, in past eras television news directors hated to see the end-of-the-year holidays coming for professional reasons.

Navigating a holiday schedule for reporters, producers, and anchors was often the equivalent of going three-wide at Talladega or Daytona.  The chances of a crash and creating angst are exponentially multiplied.

Even with caveats when hiring personnel that seniority equals priority for time off on company holidays, someone comes away bruised and does not hesitate to let you, the omniscient manager, know it.

In my years as a news director, I employed a system that I thought couldn’t miss—-pick two out of the three Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year holidays with Christmas reserved for the senior third of the staff.  Yeah, that plan was sure-fire until the first reporter whined about not seeing his or her family on Christmas in four years.  I stuck to the plan but made myself extraordinarily unpopular with some during the season of good cheer.

That brings me to the subject of Thanksgiving Day—which is a perpetually sore spot with scores of TV news personnel, even though, technically, the news never stops.  One of the ten most frequently asked questions I had during my news career from the outside world was, “Why do you people do news on Thanksgiving Day?”

I can offer you a few sensible reasons why that is a logical question:

—-Thanksgiving Eve and Thanksgiving Day are considered the two heaviest travel days of the year when the bulk of your audience is unlikely to be home.

—-Thanksgiving Eve and Thanksgiving Day are perpetually two of the six least-watched days of television during the year.  One of the few aberrations to the night before Thanksgiving was in 1999 when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” became the national rage.  ABC opted to expand “Millionaire” from a 13-night series to 18 nights, winding up on Thanksgiving Eve.  People made that appointment for Regis.  That has not seriously repeated itself.

—-Few things of earth-shattering substance occur on Thanksgiving Day or night.

True, this year, St. Louis is reeling from the aftermath of the Ferguson riots, a story that will extend well into December.  A few of the megacities—Los Angeles and Oakland, in particular—have had to cope with the tentacles of Ferguson extending to violence from protesters.  However, stop and ponder how many times a story of this ilk has erupted on Thanksgiving.  In the last decade, aside from those who were coping with the effects of Hurricane Sandy (sorry, Weather Channel, I never adopted your “superstorm” designation and never will), you find few gamechanger stories.

I can tell you tonight what will constitute newscasts in most American cities Thanksgiving Day.  With a few variations, this is what you will see if you tune in your local news after the football games:

—-People in soup kitchens, churches, or food pantries serving Thanksgiving meals to the less fortunate

—-People in line at retail stores for their doorbuster Thanksgiving Day specials (show up early at K-Mart for its 6 a.m. opening)

—-Any fights that break out between shoppers for the first-hour bargains

—-Whether the earlier store openings are diluting the impact of Black Friday shopping (this appears to be the hot economic story this year)

—-Man-on-the-street interviews on whether retail stores should be open on Thanksgiving Day.

—-Salvation Army bell-ringers

—-Travel delays at airports in cities with snow and sleet

—-The plunge in gas prices this year vs. last Thanksgiving’s price at the pump

—-Thanksgiving Day church services

—-Turkey Day 5K or marathon runs

—-Fatal highway accidents

—-Spot police stories

—-Tips on how to keep the pounds off during the holidays

—-Why people choose to take in a movie on Thanksgiving Day (because they don’t like football, they’re tired of the relatives and they don’t have any interest in local news on a holiday)

—-How to choose a Christmas tree (because surely your viewers have forgotten those vital tips you shared with them a year ago)

—-A few enterprise stories happily and generously produced earlier by reporters or anchors enjoying the big turkey meal at home while their colleagues sweat out how they are going to fill one, two or even three hours of air time with a skeleton crew

Bet the mortgage, you will see a reporter bundled up in a parka or large overcoat, smiling as if someone is prying his or her mouth open in front of a Best Buy, H.H. Gregg, or Staples.  That journalist will have smoke spewing from his or her mouth while happily telling you how the crowd is packed inside to grab those sale-priced items.  The reporter will have collared some unsuspecting soul who will say, “I just wanted to get that Xbox before they were all gone.”  Hardly original, but the exercise will serve to fill two minutes of precious air time for the producer.

Folks, don’t blame the hard working people who are out and about doing stories that would be far more unlikely to air on a conventional non-holiday newscast.  The task was monumental enough to deliver a product when the standard was predominantly to air a half-hour newscast on Thanksgiving Day.  In smaller cities now having to produce two hours of news per day with limited staffs, I honestly don’t know how they do it—and if they could tell you, the reporters and producers would say they don’t know how they do it.

I will say what would have me impaled on a hook had I ever said this while actively and gainfully employed in television news.  Virtually nothing occurs on Thanksgiving or Christmas in most cities that would kill a local news department’s image to take the day off.  In 1983, when I was in Savannah, Ga., the dominant market leader WTOC went dark on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  That station aired news specials and Christmas choirs in the news slots.  My general manager insisted we had a chance to gain “big viewer sampling” on the two holidays.  So, we forged ahead.  That monstrous viewer sampling did not result in any measurable ratings spike in the February Nielsens.

I just sampled a 1964 Thanksgiving week TV Guide issue from Binghamton, Syracuse, Elmira and Wilkes-Barre.  Six of the ten local stations in that edition eschewed local news on Thanksgiving Day.  Sure, that was 50 years ago.  I’m certain none of them touted they were “live! local! late-breaking!” or “on your side.”  But I doubt if the world of the 1964 viewership of those New York or Pennsylvania cities was crushed or came to a grinding halt because local news did not air on Thanksgiving Day.

The sole reason for local news to air on Thanksgiving is the same reason as you will see a freezing reporter standing “live” in front of a box chain store somewhere in your city, if you choose to watch.  The advertisers demand that local outlet to push their first-hour specials on Thanksgiving afternoon and night and Black Friday (even though Black Friday no longer has its original mystique).  Even though local news audiences are fractionalized from what they were even 10 years ago, merchants still see newscasts as the best tools to reach potential customers.

I worked either Thanksgiving or Christmas or both during my first five years in TV news.  That is what goes with the territory.  One year, an anonymous viewer surprised our news staff with a turkey and a sandwich tray.  A card attached read:  “To my favorite newscasters.  Sorry you’re having to work today.”  So were we, but that one gesture made our day and night.

I make no bones about it.  Thanksgiving Day is one holiday I set aside to spend with family.  When the set goes on, as it does, it will be tuned to football and not local news.  I won’t be alone.  However, I have a great affinity for those thousands of young people who will be toiling in newsrooms much quieter than on a typical day.  I’ve been there.  All because the advertisers demand to sell their products on the biggest ticket days of the year.  Their commercials make news jobs possible.

To those news staffs struggling and scrambling to fill much too much air time while the rest of us struggle and scramble to keep from filling too much of our stomachs, The Old TV News Coach sends this greeting—–a most happy and blessed Thanksgiving.