Monday, February 20, 2006

Local Television Stations: The Actual Cause Of All Dumbed-Down News?

It's pretty obvious to me that local news broadcasts participate in dumbing down news whenever they ignore hard news stories for pieces on Powerball jackpots and The Bachelor's chick-choice. But according to Former CBS News reporter Tom Fenton, local television has even less obvious, but more significant influence over dumbed-down national news than I previously understood. If you didn't know this, you'll be surprised yourself.

Fenton criticizes corporate resistance to expanding evening news reports beyond their 30-minute segments and corporate tendencies toward "easy revenue with cheaper outlay and less hard news." But the culprits are not simply the networks:
[T]he public's demands [for more hard news] get dissipated in the complex decentralized structure of channel ownership. Local television stations are the real profit centers [emphasis mine]. The networks that simply supply programs to affiliate stations have slim profit margins, but the owners of the stations make bags of money broadcasting on the nation's free airwaves [emphasis mine]. Which explains why the local stations have always resisted suggestions to expand the network news broadcasts, or move them into the evening hours, which are traditionally filled with the most popular and profitable entertainment shows.
Fenton goes on to say that one of the ways to change local stations' constriction and compression of hard news on every level is for groups of viewers and journalists to organize and threaten licenses by constantly reporting local broadcasters to the FCC. The changes made by CBS after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," is an example for Fenton of the influence that mobilizing groups can have over programming.

Where do political, media, and news-oriented weblogs stand in this? To me they stand at a critical juncture. Either they can be watchdogs of local media and agents that encourage organizing for broadcasting reform or they can become tools of local broadcasters, some of whom belong to powerful lobbies in Washington and in state houses. Whatever original reporting is done by weblogs provides an important alternative to the watery discharge that often passes for news, but actually only fills up the hypnotic space of "human interest" like the creamy junk filling a spongy twinkie. Weblogs can either allow themselves to become mesmerized by stuff like The Bachelor to follow suit, or they can be a true alternative, providing significant news free of the dumbed-down static of mainstream media.


  1. I don't really understand how you can report a local TV station to the FCC for dumbing down news. I think if you tried, you might get laughed at over the phone. And I also don't see how Janet Jackson's boob is going to make local news better.

  2. Lot's of people have been laughed at through history. Some deserved it. Some did not. Being laughed at is often the price of acting according to conscience even though being laughed at is dreaded by many and most especially by youth.

    I think that Fenton pretty clearly used the wardrobe malfunction to illustrate that organized groups can influence the FCC to act to change programming. It's up to local watchdog groups to organize in order to demand better from local news stations so that they can have the same influence.

  3. But people only get upset by offensive material on television. They don't get upset when a reporter fails to contact enough people in order to report the story correctly. Parents aren't going to start screaming for blood when a local news station cuts another 30 seconds out of a newscast each year in order to make room for more ads. The fact is most people would rather have more televised murder trials, racy entertainment shows, people eating pig organs for money, and whatever else networks can think of.
    Nobody is crying over the demise of journalism.

  4. I think you are underestimating the American news-viewing audience. Of course, underestimating the American news-viewing audience and low-balling their intelligence with everything from closing foreign news bureaus to founding Fox News is exactly what has gotten the broadcast industry into the veritable mess that it is in now in its obsession with sensation. But the American audience tires quickly of sensation (O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Michael Jackson), and I do believe that they especially crave hard news after 9/11. Why else would NPR's audience share increase in the years after 9/11, while the big 3's audience shares all shrunk at the same time that their mainline news has grown more sensationalistic? If the world were as you say, it should be the other way around. The big 3 should be pulling in a haul.

    I'm not just advocating that reporters get stories correctly. I'm advocating that they do some real investigative journalism into local community problems rather than burning that air time on the latest Powerball numbers. I'm advocating that local stations start adapting for hour-long network newscasts that include original reporting about international problems rather than relying on some news outlet to funnel footage that can be re-racked over and over again, edited with a local voice-over.

    "If it bleeds it leads" was a mantra invented by corporate consultants for journalists, and yet, the latter seem to assume that blood is exactly what people desire as if it were written in stone. It's no wonder that the journalistic view of average people is jaded and cynical. I don't see why anyone would be motivated to go into journalism when their view of their subjects and their audience is so low.

    But the truth is that mainstream media won't give their viewing audience a chance. They don't call people to rise above titillation in order to turn back peril. They ignored and killed indepth investigations into al Qaeda days before 9/11 because for the sake of pandering to sensational aerial stunts at plane shows and to popular preoccupations with dietary supplements. With a few exceptions, they don't try to resurrect the old idea that journalism means making the mundane interesting and relevant to people's lives. I believe that a lot of people would have sat up and taken notice of al Qaeda if journalism had shown their relevancy; I think 9/11 might have been averted if journalism had done the hard work it should have.

    I mean, what else are journalists going to strive for? Applause? If that's the case, they're toast. We don't need journalism as entertainment. We need a fourth estate. Since 9/11, I think a lot of people are crying for that.

  5. "Nobody is crying over the demise of journalism."

    For what it's worth, I am.

  6. Mike: The perspective of people like Tom Fenton who have worked at network TV most of their careers is skewed. The battle over expanding network newscasts to one hour was fought two decades ago by Tom Brokaw. It came at a time when the networks were carving more airtime from the affiliates and that is where the real resistance came from.
    That Mr. Fenton thinks local TV stations are making bags of money shows just how out of touch he is with what is happening at the local level. Not a week goes by that some station announces the closing or consolidation of their news department with another station. The economics are getting tougher on local stations all the time.

    As for Powerball and Batchelor stories, they are in the newscasts for a variety of reasons. Powerball because there is a genuine interest in the numbers (just look at the number of tickets sold) and stories like the Batchelor are rating stunts by stations trying to take advantage of the lead-in audience to their newscast. Most news directors would agree with you that it is not news but they are forced to play by Nielsen rules and they will do what they can to get and hold an audience. That’s also what drives those inane news teases you see throughout the night and the newscast.

    The networks all used to have documentary units. CBS reports did incredible documentary reporting. They’re gone now because the audiences dwindled away. Whose fault is that? I don’t know.

    The fragmentation of the viewing audience is actually going to eventually reduce the number of stations doing news here in Nashville. The costs of maintaining a newsroom, usually a stations single biggest expense, will be overtaken by shrinking audience and revenues.

  7. Maybe the answer is to take more of a William S. Burroughs approach, like with a cut-up machine ... watch television randomly, change the channel every 15 minutes, and see if you learn something "bigger."


  8. Mike: What about the parent corporations like Young? Do they not make a killing off of free public air time? Are they required to publicly disclose their financial records?

  9. Yes, Young is a publicly traded company and has to issue the standard reports on a quartrly and annual basis.

    There isn't enough space here to get into the public airwaves debate. We need to do that face to face with a lot of time. Corporations have certainly made tons of money off of their broadcast licenses. But when all this started in the pre-cable days most stations were owned locally. There was a sense of giving back to the community that is still alive today. Literally billions are collected by local stations in the wake of disasters man made or natural. Stations invest heavily in news and weather to serve their communities. You don't get this from a cable channel. There are many facets to consider.