When she was in third grade, Greta Van Susteren pulled out her Raggedy Ann stationery to write a letter to the editor of her local paper, the Appleton (WI) Post Crescent, about a headline she thought was unfair to kids. Many years later, she still reads her old hometown paper, but by her own admission, Van Susteren has not spent a lot of time watching local TV news. Until now.
With the zeal of the convert, Van Susteren is scouring the websites and streaming the newscasts of stations all across the country. “I know the traffic in Cedar Rapids. There’s a murder in Anchorage that they’re all talking about. I know the student loan problems drowning people in Iowa,” Van Susteren told me over bottles of mineral water during this week’s NAB Show in Las Vegas. “There’s just so much information going on around the world, besides what I have been consumed with for the last 25 years,” she says. “This expands my horizon.”
Why the sudden crash course in local news? It’s all to prepare for the cable news veteran’s just-announced new project, a Sunday public-affairs political program coming this fall to all 93 stations owned by Van Susteren’s new employer, Gray Television, and syndicated to non-Gray markets that want it. (The Weigel stations in Chicago and Milwaukee have already signed up.)
The show is cleverly titled Full Court Press — reminding viewers of Van Susteren’s background as a legal analyst, journalist, and interviewer, while also suggesting gritty tenacity. But it’s not just another Sunday morning talk-fest: the host and her producers plan to draw on the knowledge and reporting of all the company’s stations to create a unique and innovative blend of trusted local authority and national reach: think 90 shades of Gray.
“She has the resources now of our local stations in 90-plus markets, essentially almost as bureaus if you will — feet on the street — and the insights of those local markets that are a resource for Greta and this new show,” says Gray SVP Sandy Breland, who’s overseeing the project.
“Who knows a community better?” asks Van Susteren. “Is it someone who is from Washington — of course I fall in that category — who parachutes in for three hours and leaves, or is it the Gray stations in Iowa whose reporters live and breathe Iowa — and when they’re not on the air, they’re also living and breathing Iowa? Naturally they’re going to be trusted more.”
Breland also helped launch the company’s Investigate TV OTT channel (see our report here), which will contribute to and carry Full Court Press. She believes the time is right for a non-partisan political show that operates at the intersection of national policy and local concerns. “We know that more and more viewers have an interest in what happens in Washington and how it impacts their community. And we think that to address those issues through a local lens is different.”
Van Susteren and Breland say that Full Court Press won’t just pull ideas from the stations but will actually use local stories and reporters on the program. Breland sees it as a chance for Gray’s newsrooms to shine rather than an added burden. “For the news directors, we’re tapping into resources and content they already have. So I think for them, it’s an opportunity to showcase the great work they’re doing in a broader scale, the great work they’re doing at the local level. I think it’s something they’re excited about.”
Full Court Press will be a half-hour show at launch, with a live feed at 7 AM every Sunday for stations to air sometime that morning. A digital component called Full Court Press — Overtime (you can’t keep a good sports metaphor down!) will feature extended interviews and additional content. And the program arrives in time to take advantage of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Breland and Van Susteren are still figuring out the actual format and whittling down a slate of producer candidates. As with any experiment, they expect Full Court Press to evolve and change — based at least in part on the stations’ feedback. “It’s new, it’s different,” says Breland. “We want to respond to what we’re hearing from the markets. We’ll gauge that on a week-to-week basis. We want to make sure we’re answering a need.”
Van Susteren, 64, who was hired in February to be Gray’s chief national political analyst, knows she’s going to have to win the trust of the men and women in the local newsrooms. “I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. I can’t just sort of parachute into Gray TV and expect that, you know, people are going to like me, or want to work with me, or want to do things with me.”
After nearly 25 years working at all three cable news networks, Van Susteren admits she has a lot to learn about local TV news, and she’s hoping her new colleagues will help her. “I thought I knew the news business. This is so complicated,” she says. “I know what I don’t know, and I’m learning this business. I need them to help me, to be another partner with me. I don’t come in feeling like I know more than they do. I come into this thinking ‘Oh, my God, they know so much more than I do.’ I need to learn from them.”
[DISCLOSURE: Van Susteren and Andrew had never met before, but Andrew’s wife Priscilla Painton, executive editor at Simon & Schuster, edited Van Susteren’s latest book, Everything You Need to Know About Social Media (Without Having to Call a Kid).]