The problem with canned TV news

March 13, 2012: 1:19 PM ET

Local TV-news stations across the country seem to think their viewers are having trouble with overwhelming tides of email.

FORTUNE -- It should come as no surprise that local TV news stations use a lot of canned material from syndicators. TImes are tough, and budgets thin. But a video montage aired on "Conan" last week, which has since gone viral, shows just how pervasive the practice has become, and just how indiscriminate many stations are about which reports they choose to air.

This was host Conan O'Brien's lead-in last Tuesday night: "A lot of people think that Super Tuesday is the big story of the day. Well, judging by local news, apparently there's an even bigger story that's sweeping the nation right now." The montage was then shown, with about 30 different anchors asking: "Could this be the end of email overload?" The report focuses on Shortmail, a program created by a company called 410 Labs. The product, which has been called "Twitter for email," promises to solve the supposed "overload" problem by limiting emails to 500 characters.

At least 225 stations aired the report. It was produced by CNN Newsource, which is sort of like an Associated Press for TV news (and which, like Fortune, is owned by Time Warner (TWX)). The montage included the introductions to 30 of those reports. The hilarity grew as the well-coiffed anchors' identical intros piled up. The report has the benefit of meeting the minimum definition of "real news." Meaning, it wasn't a video news release dressed up to look like an actual report; nor was it stealth product placement presented as news.

The actual news value is questionable, however. Even David Troy, the CEO of 410 Labs, has trouble believing that the average viewer in Springfield, Mo., or San Antonio, Texas, is "overloaded" with email. Though he was "pleased with the exposure," he said it was probably "too early" for such a report to air nationwide. The product was just introduced in July, and for now is aimed at "early adapters," particularly people with "public-facing" email accounts such as salespeople, Webmasters, journalists, corporate buyers, public-relations people, and the like. It not only restricts length, but also helps end users manage their email by forcing them to decide on the spot whether to delete or respond to each message. In time, Troy said, there will be more demand from the general public, especially as mobile computing grows more popular. Nobody likes to read, or store, long emails on their phone.

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Christopher Mims of Technology Review wrote last month that he liked the product but concluded that "it's not for everyone." Nonetheless, millions of viewers have now been informed that there is a solution to their "email overload" problem.

How did the Conan show even know that so many anchors across the land were repeating the intro in droidlike fashion? "When I heard the phrase,'Could this be the end of email overload?' it sounded so awkward I knew it was some bad copy and sure enough the more I looked into it, it was," said "Conan" producer Doug Karo, who created the video. Indeed, if you Google the phrase, you'll find (at this point, under all the Conan references) many links to many horribly designed local-TV Web sites. Such material is perfect for "Conan," Karo added. "Personally I love making fun of the media more than anything. Politics can be quite divisive, but I think we can all agree the media is ridiculous."

Ridiculous, yes. But also, in the case of local TV stations, often facing dwindling profits and staff cutbacks. That doesn't seem like a good reason for Baltimore's, WBAL to run the canned report, however. A CNN Newsource crew traveled from Washington, D.C. to 410 Labs to report the story. The company is headquartered in Baltimore, about 6 miles up the road from WBAL. Messages left with the station seeking comment went unanswered.

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