Re-Imagining TV News

TV News – its past and its future – has been on my mind this week.

Two giants of the TV News business began the week with a non-threatening conversation on the future of Television News. It was the centerpiece of the Wade Hargrove Colloquium put on by the UNC Media Law Center – a partnership between the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Law School here at Chapel Hill.

In one sense it was a study in contrasts: a conversation between a new leader of TV News and a veteran about to retire.

David Barrett will leave as CEO & Chair of Hearst TV, a place he has worked most of his life, at the end of the year.  Hearst, on the broadcast side, is a local television powerhouse that has won ratings and profits with an emphasis on quality and serving the community

Ben Sherwood is the president of ABC News, a subsidiary of Disney. He’s credited with the rise in ratings of Good Morning America, an ensemble morning news program that is more about the ensemble than news. Sherwood is also launching a new Latino news channel called Fusion that aims to attract new younger Hispanic viewers.  It’s a combination of news and chat and current events – much of it with edge or as they say – a sense of satire.  One public affairs program’s title is:  “No You Shut Up.”

Although the business of TV isn’t as good as it was 20 years ago when 25%+ profits were the norm, it is a business that is competitive and lucrative. Both Barrett and Sherwood were optimistic.

But I’m worried.  TV news doesn’t command the attention or the respect it once did and today it looks just like it did when I was working in it – very little of the formula has changed.

Today when the Sunday talk shows, to which I’m addicted, showed clips from TV appearances of soon to be president John F. Kennedy in the middle of the last century, I realized why I am worried.

It was fifty years ago this week that JFK was assassinated and the power of television news was experienced by a nation brought together in grief by the ability of television news to take viewers to the scene of real events in real time.  It was the event that created the TV anchorman.  Walter Cronkite held America’s hand that tragic week and created a bond with the audience that lasted his entire career.

Fifty years is a long time ago.  Except for color television and a lot more women and minorities on the set, the stuff of TV news is almost the same.  Authoritative figures sit behind a desk giving the news.  Windblown reporters on the scene hold microphones and tell what they know.  Stories about 90 seconds or less in length sum up complex ideas and issues.  News programs are mostly 30 minutes in length or in cycles of 30-minute segments.  Commercials interrupt about every 5 minutes with the promise we’ll be back with more in a minute.

My students are not watching TV News.  They are not participating in any ceremony of news that is organized around breakfast or lunch or dinner or at bedtime.  They get information – text or video – when they want it.   They don’t need to have a formula of TV News determine what or when they can get the sports, or the lead story on the Philippines or an analysis of Obama Care.

I think they still like well-crafted visual stories that explain complicated ideas, or introduce characters.  I think they are still drawn to good storytelling and powerful video segments.  I’m just not certain they have any expectation of joining the TV schedule that I follow almost without fail because news is a habit I enjoy.

Barrett and Sherwood didn’t twitch when pushed about young viewers and their habits.  They are experimenting some, and they argued that when jobs and mortgages make young peoples’ routines more – well routine – they expected them to be back in the audience.

That worried me.  I heard newspaper editors argue that youth would grow up and find the wonders of newspapers too.

I’m now pondering whether our JOMC students, who produce great conventional television news in our classes, should be pushing the boundaries.  Not doing what I did, or what is being done today.  And, I don’t mean simply being hip or glib.  I’m talking about experimenting with how to tell stories that are important and compelling and central to our democracy.  I’m talking about experimenting with how to engage with the audience in authentic and relevant ways.

Video is not going away. There is more of it than ever: on newspaper web sites, embedded in tweets, on U-Tube.   But TV News.  That’s another question.  I want the values Barrett and Sherwood voiced.  But I also want to see something really new emerge.  Who better than students to re-imagine it?

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