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Is TV news good news?

Been thinking about a piece by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker of December 10, 2001, pondering the long-term effects of 9/11 on the TV news industry. News ratings are already slipping, and, given the costs of war coverage, the decline in ad spending and the lost ad revenue during the 90+ hours of nonstop coverage immediately following 9/11, it's not clear if TV's newfound dedication to international news will last.

Auletta cites Andrew Tyndall (who produces the Tyndall Report), who calculates that networks have gone from c. 2,000 minutes of international news each in 1988, to 1100 to 1200 last year. (Networks are now run by entertainment execs, and straight news is boring. What's 2+2 again?)

To be sure, news programs, and especially international news programs, are not big draws. Peter Jennings told Auletta that network officials "came to the dangerous conclusion that Americans are not interested in the rest of the world." There's some truth to that.

People are interested in things they can relate to and things that will affect them, if not directly then at least noticably. So, the further from home a story originates, the less likely it becomes that a viewer can relate to it (excepting certain universal appeals) or that it will ever change his life in any way. Right?

Perhaps. Two points: For one, news that viewers can't relate to, or will ever be touched by, truly isn't worth reporting on TV. I mean, yes, it should be recorded and accessible, but there's really not much reason that people should know about it.

On the other hand (this is No. Two), events overseas often do affect affairs in the States, and the burden of making a news story hit home is a good one. Viewers weren't interested in Middle East affairs prior to 9/11 simply because they were rarely told why they should be. This isn't their failing, it's the networks'. And it's a costly one, both for their businesses and for the audience they are supposed to serve.

The easy way to make a buck off the news is to sensationalize the easy stories. "Shark Attack!" "Washington Intern Vanishes!" Nothing could be simpler. But the fact that there is an easy way out doesn't mean the hard way isn't better. There are stories that would be far better told on TV than in print or online, and real news can be good business if told well. People will watch if it hits home, and it lends credibility to the organization delivering it, and separates a good news source from a pack of sensationalists. And without it, the networks will make themselves irrelevant, and dispensible.

December 11, 2001 6:09 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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