I remember the day I lost any faith in local or national news. It wasn’t when the Colombia Space Shuttle exploded and CNN put this erroneous ‘factoid’ on the air:
A few years ago I was sitting in a department head meeting when the news director piped up about a story of significant public safety value they had learned and were eager to get it on the air. He was excited about it and was sure it would grab everyone’s attention and blow the competing local newscasts out of the water. The catch was, we were a couple weeks away from the sweeps period and the news department was going to sit on it until the station could use it to get that bump in the ratings they so desperately needed. Furthermore, it wasn’t going to air immediately when the sweeps month began. Oh no, it was going to be teased by the promotions department for couple more weeks and air near the end of the sweeps period in order to maximize viewership and use it to try and inflate the number of viewers for the other newscasts since we had this tremendous story that they would be so compelled to tune in to. So much for serving the public interest and so much for my enthusiasm to aid and maintain such a department. Needless to say the GM was all for it and no other department head (other than myself apparently) thought it petty or cheap to withhold this story for any length of time, much less several weeks.
Again and again we hear stories about the declining number of TV viewers and since the local stations can’t control the network programming they spend ridiculous amounts of money in maintaining their newscasts when they’re not blaming TIVO. It’s not just the money for the anchors, reporters, photogs and equipment. Money is shoveled at consultancy firms, market research, weather equipment and on-air graphics packages to get that ever so fickle viewer to keep from changing the channel.
Well, recently I ran across an article by John Hockenberry, a former NBC reporter that tried so hard to get real news into the newscast and to bring new technology and new media into it that his efforts wound up costing him his job. This reminded me of my experiences with dealing with the politics of local news that I felt compelled to share his story.
In the story he says:
Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements.
His experience in the networks parallels my experience at the local stations. It is a sad fact that after all these decades and after all these technological advancements and changes, these powerful, money-bloated media entities stay mired in an antiquated business model while the rest of the world (and their audience) goes blissfully marching by.
Sure, not everyone working at the stations I worked at were happy with the way the system works and some other employees and reporters strive (primarily in vain) to raise the level of content to something approaching worthiness, however, the news machine is hobbled by fear. Fear that if the audience is challenged – challenged with college level words, challenged to understand the details behind a story, challenged to think – that some of those viewers will turn to another local newscast and the ratings will drop precipitously, ad revenues will fall, bonuses will not be realized by the general manager and sales manager and we simply can’t have any of that!