Whatever Happened to the News?
When hard news goes soft, entertainment takes over.
News has always mixed the serious and the entertaining. The tension between journalism and commercialism goes back long before television, but it is felt with special intensity in television news today.
In the early 1960s the networks, hugely profitable but worried about their images and about regulatory pressures, expanded their news operations and largely freed them from the pressures of commercial television. The "church" of news was to be separated from the "state" of entertainment.
In the 1970s and '80s, however, the barrier between news and entertainment has been increasingly eroded. Not all the changes of these years have been for the worse. But taken together, they raise serious questions about the future of journalism in an entertainment-dominated medium. A recent edition of the news tabloid A Current Affair, for example, ended with the tease "Coming up – sex, murder and videotape, that's next!" It may be that this is indeed the future of television news.
It was the local stations that first discovered, late in the 1960s, that news could make money– lots of money. By the end of the '70s, news was frequently producing 60 percent of a station's profits. With numbers like that, news was much "too important" to leave to journalists, and a heavily entertainment-oriented form of programming began to evolve. Often it was contrasted directly with the network news. 'Feel like you're getting a bad deal from poker-faced TV news reporters?" asked San Francisco's KGO in one ad, "Then let the Channel 7 Gang deal you in. They're not afraid to be friendly."
"When you mix fiction and news, you diminish the distinction between truth and fiction, and you wear down the audience's own discriminating power to judge."
Competitive pressures began to impinge on network news in a serious way in the late l970s. In 1976 ABC began a successful drive to make its news division competitive with CBS and NBC. Its successful move into news was followed by the growth of cable, which began to erode the networks' audience share. As outlined more fully elsewhere in this issue, this new source of competition, combined with other economic conditions, put a significant squeeze on network profits that has since come home to the news divisions in the form of an unprecedented concern with the bottom line.
In Washington, meanwhile, the FCC was dismantling most of the regulatory framework that had been imposed on the television industry since its beginnings, especially the obligation vague, to be sure– to provide some minimum of serious public affairs programming. Proponents of deregulation assumed that the free market would bring forth an age of diversity in television programming. In fact, there is a lot more news on television now than ever before. In a sense, there is also greater diversity. The last few years have seen a proliferation of new forms of "reality-based programming." If we set aside live programming and the Sunday interview shows, there were basically only two forms of public affairs television in the 1960s: the evening news and the documentary.
In the '70s new forms appeared: the news magazine, represented first by 60 Minutes, and local news in its modern, fast-paced "happy talk" form. Each breached the barrier between news and entertainment in important ways. The decade also saw the consolidation of morning news as a strongly entertainment-oriented form of programming. NBC's Today show had pioneered such a form in the 1950s. In the '70s, ABC joined the field with Good Morning America, produced by the entertainment division, and CBS abandoned hard news in the morning to try and imitate Today.
The 1980s gave us two significant additions to public affairs programming, Nightline and CNN. The latter, it might be added, is itself a complex mix of the serious and the trivial. CNN has taken up slack from the established networks in live public affairs programming, covering, for example, much of the Iran-Contra hearings ABC, CBS and NBC declined to carry and providing electrifying live coverage of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. But day in and day out, CNN news offerings resemble local news more than anything else, mixing short reports on political affairs with large doses of weather and human interest.
The '80s also saw a proliferation of 60 Minutes imitators, often with a particularly fast-paced, glitzy style. And they have seen the demise of one important form of public affairs programming: the documentary. More than any other public affairs programming, the documentary unit CBS Reports, established in that period in the early '60s when the networks were moving to head off regulatory pressures, stood apart from commercial constraints. The works produced– Harvest of Shame, for instance, or The Selling of the Pentagon– were hour-long statements about serious issues. Often a year or more in production and featuring a clear point of view, they provided a unique perspective on many problems, policies and controversial issues. Thanks to corporate scruples and bottom-line consciousness, their day in commercial television is definitely over.
The Birth of Reality News
Most of today's growth, meanwhile, has been at the "low end" in a proliferation of shows that practice what might be called "para-journalism." The most important new form is the "tabloid" news magazine, including such shows as A Current Affair, Inside Edition, Hard Copy and The Reporters.
In a way, these shows represent something very new. They are not news shows that borrow conventions from entertainment television, but the other way around: entertainment programs that borrow the aura of news. The forms and the "look" are news– the opening sequences frequently feature typewriter keys and newsroom-like sets with monitors in the background. The content, however, has little of the substance of journalism; above all, little about public affairs.
In another sense, these shows are nothing new at all. What they have done is to take the approach pioneered by the hybrid forms of the 1970s and push it to extremes. Local news is typically concerned with crime, accidents and disasters, children lost and found and new animals born at zoos; morning news with celebrities, health and "life styles." What all these stories have in common is that they are about everyday life– and about its disruptions and exaltations (crime, illness, the hero, the celebrity, the rescue). They are about private, not public, life. The "softer" news shows have always traded heavily in this kind of material. But they have mixed it with a measure of genuine journalism. Their origins in the older tradition of public affairs reporting have also imposed some limits on what they will stoop to in the way of sensationalism.
In the long run, there is reason for concern not only about the quality of the evening news, but even its survival.
With the new "tabloids" these scruples are mostly out the window. Their appeal is to the emotions, with no apologies; their interest in public affairs is not quite nil but very close (issues with sufficient emotional content, like crime and AIDS, can still bring it out). They have had great success with this model, and the rest of television news is sure to be sorely tempted to compete with them.
The main vehicle for serious public affairs coverage, meanwhile, remains the network evening news, which is widely seen as having betrayed the values of the so-called Golden Age of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. This view is not entirely accurate: like many "golden" ages, television's early years have been very much romanticized.
In many ways the evening news is better now than it was in the '80s and early '70s. There is nothing wrong with learning to use the medium effectively. The truth is that much of television news 15 or 20 years ago was both dull and difficult to understand. There is nothing wrong, either, with shifting the news agenda toward the kinds of stories more meaningful to the average audience member. If television does more stories about health or child care, up to a point that's a change for the better.
But the drive for ratings has produced many troubling practices, from the furious pace of modem news to a tendency for journalists to scramble like politicians onto the bandwagon of the latest wave of popular sentiment. In the mid-1980s the fashionable emotion was patriotism. Today it is often the evils of drugs. Poker-faced objectivity gives way to breathless moralism, as long as the issue is safe. The danger is both that passion will be inflated at the expense of understanding and that the public agenda will be distorted, with emotional issues blown up larger than life and less dramatic but equally serious ones diminished.
In the long run, there is reason for concern not only about the quality of the evening news, but even its survival. The networks expanded news programs to 30 minutes to begin with, and affiliate stations carried them, not because it was profitable but because they were a regulated industry and wanted the prestige of belonging to the Fourth Estate.
But the regulatory pressure is gone now, and the temptation for local stations to drop the network news is increased by the fact that technology has made it possible for local stations to cover many of the national and international events the networks have covered, albeit usually in a sporadic and superficial way. Technology can transfer pictures from Panama or Eastern Europe quickly and cheaply, while understanding of their context is harder to come by.
Even now the amount of time American television devotes to the affairs of public life is tiny. Most industrialized countries, for instance, have at least a full half-hour of national news in prime time; the United States has 22-23 minutes (the length of an evening news broadcast when commercials are eliminated) in "early fringe" time, with even the slots at 6 or 6:30 p.m. increasingly going to game shows and tabloids.
Some form of serious television journalism will surely survive. But it could well be reduced to serving a specialized audience, while most of the public watches nothing but the softest form of "infotainment." With most of the public getting its news from television already and newspaper readership declining, the danger of creating a public that knows and cares little about public life is very real.