Whatever Happened to the News? | Center for Media Literacy | Empowerment through Education | CML MediaLit Kit ™ |
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.
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.