On television, no news is bad news

September 24, 2002|By Daniel Meltzer

NEW YORK -- No news would indeed be bad news, but what we have now isn't much better. Two decades of mergers and takeovers, bottom-lining, advertiser pressure and federal deregulation have all but taken the "news" out of TV newscasts.

Former President Ronald Reagan, a media-made man himself, changed everything. Prior to his presidency, all networks and stations were required, in return for access to "public" air waves, to devote a minimum number of hours each week to news and "special events" programming that routinely operated in the red but whose prestige propped up overall network popularity. Ad revenues from other shows -- entertainment, sports and "daytime" -- helped support them.

That was the way it was.

Reagan deregulation dropped the news mandate. Bottom-line obsessed merger and buyout barons demanded profits from everything, including news.

Staffs were cut to a minimum; many news bureaus, especially overseas, were shuttered. Foreign video would be shared, or purchased from often-unreliable sources.

"Talent" payments to star anchors, in particular, skyrocketed. It is a given that viewers like, become habituated and even addicted to TV stars; the ones who catch killers in prime time, tell them jokes before bed or read them the news during dinner.

All network (and many local) anchors are represented by the same hard-bargaining talent agents who negotiate for game and talk show hosts, divas and professional athletes.

Times change, but the overriding mission of television has not; maximum possible ratings to ensure top prices for commercials. A half-hour network newscast includes about eight minutes of ads and "bumpers" and promos for other shows. As often as not, fewer than 10 of the remaining minutes are devoted to the day's news. The rest is filled largely with "bank" pieces -- undated videotaped features waiting on a shelf for weeks or months for a good "fit" next to an actual news story.

Most news is bad news. This is sad but true. Mood-balancing, upbeat feature stories are demanded by market-conscious, ratings-nervous executives, as are reports on new inventions, new diets or pharmaceuticals or surgical techniques, regardless of their likely long-term usefulness or effectiveness.

Inspirational ("touchy-feely") stories are especially popular, such as a recent CBS News "Eye on America" report about the "rebirth" of a young reformed alcoholic and repeat offender who, after finding God, started a camp for kids out West. The report neglected to mention what the campers actually do there or how the camp is funded.

Network anchors are megawatt celebrities in the firmament of the famous. Every time a correspondent subs for a vacationing anchor, it's an audition for the brass and/or fodder for focus groups or ratings services. The three old guys will all be out of the picture in a few years, and the networks are scrutinizing the next generation of readers.

Brian Williams, NBC's designated Nightly News anchor when Tom Brokaw retires in 2004, is young, handsome and competent, if callow. CBS White House correspondent and videogenic weekend anchor Tom Roberts (a former disk jockey) is the rumored front runner at CBS, where he regularly subs for Dan Rather. Over at ABC, where 64-year-old former war correspondent Peter Jennings still reigns, the succession picture is less clear. CNN and Fox conspicuously target younger viewers with more youthful anchors, the gray giving ground gradually to the green.

A democracy's success depends on a well-informed citizenry who can respond to government actions or policies at the ballot box. Where they get much of their information, however, is still called the "idiot box." Sensational video, the occasional scoop and feel-good features cannot paper over the fact that newscasting in America is less each year about the news and more about casting.

Daniel Meltzer is an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University and a former writer and editor for CBS News.

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