Eric’s Blog

Why not give the news audience everything it wants?

There are two different, mutually exclusive approaches to television journalism – giving the viewers what they need or giving them what they want. Giving them more of what they want is perhaps the greatest change in television journalism in the past 25 years.

The people who came to TV news in the sixties and seventies came out of the newspaper business. They understood the necessity of selling papers, but their first loyalty was to journalism. That means, they had strong views on what was, and wasn’t news. They were the ones who decided what was newsworthy and what wasn’t.

It was good – if the editors and producers were serious journalists with a strong sense of making their community a better place and setting an agenda outside the business and government spheres.

This changed with the recognition that television news could be a revenue source, not just a drain on resources to protect holding a license. With the recognition that news could make money for a station, it followed logically that ways must be found to make even more money.

This happened while stations and owners recognized they didn’t have to do much local programming, which was glamorous but very expensive to produce. They could buy this programming from a syndicator and focus on the one remaining local program that didn’t cost much to produce – the news.

When news became the station’s primary source of locally generated revenue, station managers and owners began to look much more closely at the ratings of their TV newscasts. Ratings had always been key to a commercial station’s success.

The higher your ratings, the more you could charge for advertising, and the more money you could make.

When the Reagan Administration deregulated the broadcast industry in the mid-1980’s, rules restricting multiple ownership of stations and broadcasting in the public interest (as a condition of the station’s license) were relaxed.

More and more companies bought TV stations, and the market, which was at that time dominated by three major networks and their affiliates started to change and diversify.

For newsrooms, the most significant aspect of deregulation was the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, requiring a percentage of programming in the public interest as the condition of holding a broadcast license. This, more than any other factor contributed to the state we see television news in today.

The reasoning was to let the market, not the government, decide what people want. Give people more choices. Diversity. Stations will simply give people what they want, people will watch more because they are getting what they want, stations will get richer and the economy will grow.

The growth of cable television happened simultaneously, and cable already had the advantage of not being required to run balanced and fair newscasts and a portion of programming in the public interest. In those days, because so few people were wired for cable, it wasn’t much of a threat to the three main networks.

But you only need to fast-forward to today and see that today the original “big three” networks are just three channels on cable systems, while streaming cuts into cable’s market share every year. While the major networks still command the biggest audiences by broadcasting over the free commercial airwaves, but their audience has been slipping every year and there’s no reason to think this trend will change direction.

The reason of course, is exactly what was intended by President Reagan’s deregulation of the broadcast industry: the viewers today have one hundred choices, not just three. It’s been an incredible cycle of growth. But there’s a problem – the viewing base didn’t increase at the same rate.

Now these 100 channels are fighting over essentially the same number of viewers shared by just three channels in the early 1970’s. The development of cable, VCR’s, DVD’s, streaming and don’t forget free time, not spent not in front of the TV – has all cut deeply into total viewership.

Way back in the mid-80’s, with back then the small but insistent pressure from cable and deregulation, networks and local stations realized they would have to pay more attention to the audience, not only in entertainment programming, but in news programming as well.

As the number of choices for the viewers grew, so did the pressure to deliver an audience that was the same, or even bigger than last year’s audience. Television is a for-profit business and businesses have to grow.

So, the efforts of the smart people at the stations were directed at ways to find and hold the viewers, especially for their one source of local programming revenue, the relatively inexpensive-to-produce news.

Audience research, which has been directed at entertainment program audiences was now focused on news audiences. How much news do you watch? Why do you watch? What stories do you remember? What do you want?

As the data was gathered and analyzed, stations became more and more aware of what viewers wanted. And they watched their own newscasts, and looked at their competitors, and looked at the ratings for both, trying to understand the patterns. What worked (in terms of bringing higher ratings) and what didn’t?

What didn’t always show up in the audience research but almost always showed up in the ratings was that people would tune in to watch sensationalism and triviality- blood, murder, sex, cute animal stories and so on.

Naturally this was appalling and disorienting to the news journalists who came out of the newspaper business and knew “what the news was.” They were probably right. But their tactics were wrong. They insisted that their interpretation the news was the only interpretation, and that all that trivial stuff that existed to drive the ratings up wasn’t just distasteful, it was heretical.

In fact, many of these Journalists (with a “big J”) were only interested in the stories they were interested in, or stories that could impress their journalist colleagues.

Plus, it was so easy for so many years. They could do the stories they wanted, and they didn’t have to care if anyone saw it or not. It didn’t matter, as long as the station was making money.

When stations stopped making as much money (let there be no question that owning a television station is still a very good business to be in, just as it was in 30 years ago), the revenue focus turned to the news department, the pressure to give the audience more of what it wanted grew.

It turned out many of the journalists didn’t have a clue what people were really interested in. And what the people, it seemed to them, were interested in was- just like kids who want as much candy as they can get- the sensational, the sexual, and the more blood the better.

In retrospect the big J journalists played right into the hands of their worst enemies, the people who would gladly run sex, violence and trivia 24 hours a day if they could make a fast buck off of it.

The journalists set themselves up as “holier than thou” and completely out of touch with the new economic reality: more choices plus the same number viewers equals less money for every station.

The fact is, most viewers do have a seemingly insatiable appetite for the sensational and the trivial, especially the mass audience. The lower the common denominator, the lower the education level and the sleazier the program, the more it will appeal.

Today, in the toughest market ever, TV stations need not only to retain viewers but to increase viewership. Because it’s a mass medium (and to maximize revenue you must maximize ratings), to get more viewers you have to give the viewers more of what they want – sex, violence, and trivia.
That’s business logic.

But there’s a social logic, too. How good is it for the viewers, for the community, for society in general to be fed on sensationalism? Will a child fed only on candy grow up to be strong?

The Romans used to feed the Christians to the lions. People loved that and it sold out every night. 2000 years later, public hangings and floggings were popular attractions on the weekends for all ages. People loved that too, but were these things good for society? Probably not.

What station owners have to decide today is a question of balance. Do you give the viewers only what they want? Or what they need?

I say there’s room for both. Give people what they need. That’s what we do as journalists. But you can also give them what they want. There’s room for everything in your newscast.

The world isn’t always serious, after all. It’s full of strange and funny and appalling things. The newscast should reflect that, in that it’s a reflection of the day as far as possible. The key is finding the balance between giving people what they want and what they need. How you reach that balance defines who you are as a news organization.

News organizations don’t have to be tabloid to be successful. Strictly tabloid news programs have a clear disadvantage as well. Viewer loyalty is weak. After a year or two, the sensation wears off, and viewers go looking for another program that gives them a new sensation. The old program struggles along for a while and then dies.

It’s about knowing your audience- what they need AND what they want. Defining the balance, between what they need and what they want, and what you give them, defines who you are as news organization. Give them what they need, and what they want. Just don’t let the trivial outweigh the important stuff.

Remember also that entertainment programming generally has a happy ending, and in America especially that’s a characteristic of the successful entertainment program. Everything comes out ok at the end. If it’s well done, the audience responds and watched.

But the news rarely has a happy ending. It’s more about problems and difficulties, and it’s sometimes hard to watch. That’s why a news program will never have a rating like an entertainment program. The effort to steer the news toward entertainment (giving people what they want more than what they need) is a direct result of the ratings pressure every station that wants to stay in business feels.

Just recognize that you can do both, and be successful. Finding the balance is the key. Make your newscast compelling to watch, but don’t lose the things that make it the news.