Dollars can't measure the value of `Nightline'

March 10, 2002|By Ross Tuttle

NEW YORK -- The possibility that Nightline, ABC's long-running public affairs show, may be in trouble is only the latest, if not the most vivid, indication that broadcast news is undergoing a dramatic transformation.

Before the threat to Nightline surfaced last week, Americans already had witnessed the convergence of news and entertainment as the major television networks moved to soften their content and hire popular performers as anchors in order to attract a younger, more desirable audience.

But ABC's parent company, Disney, has gone a step further by seeking to replace one of the most respected news programs in the country with CBS talk show comedian David Letterman.

Network executives, of course, place a high value on ratings and revenue. Advertising dollars generated for Nightline are tens of millions less than those for Mr. Letterman's Late Show.

Indeed, value is determined in monetary terms. But what appears to be left out of the equation is the value to the public in providing important news and public affairs content.

I have come to learn firsthand the lasting and positive impact of public affairs television and how great a loss its shrinking airtime will have on American society.

Last year, I began work with producer Ofra Bikel on a project for Frontline, an educational documentary program broadcast on PBS. The show examined the case of a young black man from North Carolina who was convicted of a crime he did not commit.

When we first met Terence Garner, he was serving a sentence of 32 to 43 years for armed robbery and attempted murder. He had already been imprisoned for five years, even though his two alleged co-conspirators proclaimed his innocence.

The project took a year and several hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete. It aired in January, and in less than a month Mr. Garner's conviction was thrown out and he was released from prison. The documentary was roundly credited with gaining Mr. Garner his liberty.

While the success was remarkable, it is only one of many achievements that can be attributed to decades of compelling, honest, hard-hitting journalism.

America's media moguls often argue they are giving the public what it wants when they slide their programming down market. But this logic is self-serving, belittling to viewers and often wrong.

Viewers certainly appreciate and will respond to well-crafted and expertly reported shows. Frontline received thousands of e-mails and letters, and North Carolina officials were inundated with angry letters and phone calls after the airing of An Ordinary Crime.

If it had not been for this public outcry from devoted viewers, Mr. Garner would still be in jail.

But this kind of reporting is costly to networks, as is all good investigative journalism. It is far cheaper to produce a one-hour program of talking heads and celebrities.

In one explanation for its negotiations with Mr. Letterman, ABC reportedly said that because of the prominence of 24-hour news programming, Nightline has become irrelevant. But it has more than seven times the number of viewers than cable news networks have at any given time. And as Nightline host Ted Koppel has indicated, Nightline ratings often soar to the No. 1 slot in times of crisis.

While cable news might be giving us more news, that doesn't necessarily make it better news; we recognized that long before last summer's coverage of Gary Condit.

For more than 20 years, Nightline has provided invaluable and insightful reporting on far-ranging subjects, from African wars to American prisons. And the show has gained particular pertinence now, a time when it is more important than ever for Americans to better understand the world around us.

If Nightline is to fall victim to the fight for ratings and revenue, with the exception of the shareholders, Americans will be far poorer as a result.

Ross Tuttle is a free-lance writer and television producer and recently completed a year as associate producer on a documentary that aired in January on Frontline.

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