What Time Is it Kids?
Tick Tick Tick go the promos for the new Sixty Minutes, "62" in insider parlance, as a fresh wave of infotainment launches CBS's best branded program into the turbulent waters of prime time, there to battle the Datelines and 20/20's that have, like kudzu, vined their way through the weekly schedule.Two years ago, the networks and the cable news channels featured 26 hours of news magazine programming. This year, there are 63 hours on the air. Why the jump? Newsmags are cheaper to make than dramas or sit coms, and the networks can own and repackage them outright without forking out pricey license fees. Increasingly they have replaced any mission to inform with formulas borrowed from entertainment--narrative arcs, character conflicts, and dramatic structure. By pushing emotional buttons, they condition viewers to expect news as just storytelling, not whistle blowing. In a heavily hyped 'information age,' on the tube at least, information is increasingly in short supply.Tick Tick.Tick. Say kids, what time is it? Not only is the time for broadcast news passing but the clock is running out on TV's own history. New technologies like the internet and digital transmission are poised to end the era of TV as we have known it. In the next few years, we will be trading in our old sets for the latest digi-groovy, high-definition, higher priced, picture-perfect receivers capable of receiving more channels. Yet if trends continue, there will also be less meaningful content. The seven media conglonerates who effectively rule our airwaves are restructuring and dumbing down before our eyes. The reasons they give are economc, but there's more to it. News biz has merged with show biz.In the last few weeks, all of the networks have been scrambling to cut costs as viewership vanishes, and for most of them, that means shrinking the few remaining information programs. TV news is caught in crossfires of the networks own making, even as the moguls regurgitate the mantra: 'we are only giving the people what they want.' As they chop budgets, they promise more news in less time. What a bargain.At our production company, I often learm about pending cutbacks when the volume of job inquiries and unsolicited resumes multiply. News about the news is whispered on the phone first in the form of leaks from disillusioned colleagues. That news has not been good:* At Fox News, one of the sharpest young men I know in the business calls to advise that he and the staffers he considers "the smartest" (ie. network veterans) have been terminated "They are finally doing it," he tells me, "going tabloid all the way." He told me about story meetings in which Executives demanded more segments in the "Naked and Dead" genre. (Norman Mailer, the author of a great novel by that name would be horrified). When Murdoch launched Foc News , he boasted he would offer "fair and balanced news" as opposed to CNN's "too liberal" bias. His new stars: Dick Morris and Matt Drudge. Who's next? Monica?* At NBC News 200 to 300 employees were fired. Bureaus in Tokyo, Johannesburg ( the last network outpost in Africa) and Denver were shuttered. In all of its promos, NBC brags it is number #1 in news. What it doesn't boast about is its strategy for getting there--"the human temperment approach," story selection with alphabetic determinism:--Two R's (Is it "real and relatable?") and 3 E's (entertainment, education, and edificiation?") "The truth is we use a human temperment approach to television," NBC's Research Director David Schiavone acknowledged in l996, "and the truth is that we do it in prime time and in news too."* At CBS last week, up to 125 newsies (no execs) were pink slipped in a total staff cut of l600 ordered by Mel Karmazin, an ad salesman turned radio biz guru-- Howard Stern's patron--who runs Murrow's house with moolah from Westinghouse. CBS's news division now reports to Entertainment. Network watchers recall that when Karmazin and Co. took over, pundits predicted fewer cuts after the devastating downsizing imposed by ex-owner Larry Tisch. "There's nothing left to cut but bone," they sighed. Welcome Home!* CBS says it is talking with CNN about linking news gathering, a sign of more consolidation underway. Already CNN reports are heard on CBS radio. CBS wants costs controlled; CNN, network access. A broadcast trade reports both sides arguing over who controls what. Meanwhile CNN unveiled its new multi-million dollar news set.* At Disney's ABC, where debate over a company decision to "postpone" (ie cancel?) an investigative story about Disney World has divided the news division. David Westin, a corporate lawyer known for deal making, not news breaking, consolidated control over Roone Arledge's old turf. One colleague reports that he assembled producers to order new abc's. Henceforth, stories must include "three C's" -celebity, calamity and (sic) sensationalism" And for the new season, all newsmags will be branded 20/20. Why? Perhaps Sesame Street knows: numbers maybe easier to remember than words.Meanwhile, in late September, the nation's news brass held their annual self-congratulatory convention. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio and TV News Directors Association said they achieved consensus on the Lewinsky newsathon. "In the end, everybody agreed it was important," she said. "Reaffirmation is a very good word." A few weeks earlier, an Electronic Media poll reported 69 percent of viewers and 70 percent of news managers agreed the story was overcovered. When asked how important they considered it, 51 percent of viewers replied, "not important at all." Survey upon survey shows disgust with the non-stop sleaze. Many viewers vote with their eyeballs as network watching drops to its lowest point in history. Sexploitation may spike ratings, but it turns off as many as it turns on.Why this gap between what people say they want, and what networks give them? The answer is in the economics and routines of news coverage. One cameraman I encountered at the White House summed it up by boasting about all the overtime he was making thanks to Ken Starr. "This is no longer a story, Danny," he told me. "It is an industry. They own channels and have to fill them." It's an industry where opinions are cheaper to rent than complex news is to report. Where sitcom like sensations are milked for months, while documentaries decline and world news disappears even as globalization poses an urgent crisis. "Money follows interest" admits ABC News chief Dick Wald.So watch tonight to see what the corportate interest(s) is, and remember what interests you. 'Reaffirmation is a very good word' Beat the clock, anyone? Tick Tick.Tick.......Danny Schechter is Executive Producer of Globalvision and author of The More You Watch, The Less You know (Seven Stories Press).