What future is there for nightly newscasts on what used to be the “Big 3” over the air networks, when nearly every story they are running each night has been in the daily rotation of more than a half-dozen outlets all day long? If they had something new, something that had not already been reported ad-nauseum, then they would be worth watching. However, generally speaking, they don’t. Generally speaking, both the nets and local broadcast outlets have fallen into the terrible trap of simply repeating stories, hour after hour and day after day as opposed to actually advancing the issues they are trying to cover. And it is boring. Why watch what you’ve already seen three or four times?
None of this is meant to criticize the many hard-working broadcast journalists out there, attempting to deal with budget-slashing, cost-cutting companies, who care more for the overnights than for the quality of their operation’s journalism. I was up close and personal when Tribune passed its torch to Sam Zell. When CBS, ABC and NBC, closed bureau after bureau slashing budgets both at home and overseas. When “merger madness” promoted fewer outlets, cutting choices for viewers and readers as fewer companies gobbled up more and more of the country’s once independent broadcast outlets and newspapers.
Family owned broadcast outlets that took pride in the quality of their operation’s journalism have been replaced by sheer, obvious corporate greed. Capitalism and Journalism are oil and water. It’s the elephant in the room that’s been denied for decades, ever since Bill Paley forced Ed Murrow to take a hike from CBS because his brand of journalism was injurious to Paley’s bottom line.
In a battle between a corporate boardroom and journalism, you can be sure journalism will lose.
I recall Tribune Broadcasting giving us all mousepads emblazoned with the phrase, “The Year of the Customer!” letting us know in no uncertain terms that we were there to “drive shareholder earnings.” A stack of copies of the overnight ratings was left on the assignment desk every morning to remind us how well or how badly we were doing in support not of journalism, but of our sales department
Do you really think Donald Trump would have been elected without the massive free coverage he received from the networks and cable whose ratings shot up every time they put him on the air? And Trump was cheap to cover. Just put a camera in front of him, let him rant on and then recycle the rant over and over again in the next 24-hour news cycle.
Donald Trump was a cost-effective solution for ratings-hungry broadcast outlets. And he knew it.
On the other side, investigative reporting is expensive. What place is there for it in this current corporation owned ratings-mad environment ruled by sales and promotion?
A news director I worked with in Los Angeles, predicted some years ago, that the future of broadcast news would rest with news and opinion shows and not with straight news, specifically because the traditional nightly newscasts have nothing new while the personality driven opinion shows are more interesting as well as being less expensive and easier to produce. Just assemble the usual cast of suspects and let the largely opinion-based talking begin.
With ratings driving everything, we’re getting what we want to watch and not what we need to know as giving an audience both sides and then letting them make up their own minds about how they feel becomes a thing of the past, nothing but a distant memory for those of us with the ability to remember it at all. And it will only get worse, as dollar signs continue to fill the eyes of station owners and network shareholders demanding the promotion of personalities that give you what you want, information that reinforces personal bias instead of challenging viewers to actually think.
France24, Al Jazeera, the BBC and Reuters streaming news are viable alternatives, as they are still covering news with an eye toward what matters with a world view as opposed to cost-effective infotainment to drive up the ratings. Even Comcast owned Sky News, does a far better job of covering the world than the American networks. Undoubtedly, because it’s based in the U.K., making it somewhat off the radar of American marketing madness.
One of the great contradictions for me, was watching superior coverage of the many wars in the Middle East by Al Jazeera, while Americans tuned into what was basically lame coverage by “embedded” (controlled) reporters for the American networks, which simply did not have the people or ability to cover the wars that Al Jazeera had. Most of the American nets had closed their bureaus, mostly eliminating any chance they had to get an insider’s view of what was really happening. It was cost-effective for the networks but bad for the American people, who were being fed news about the irrational backlash against “French Fries” while being short-changed on information from the front lines.
Going forward you can be sure that traditional news sources like the old nets and cable will be watched increasingly by less-educated, lower-income individuals, who care more for their own point of view, while those that can afford it will turn to streaming services offering greater variety and in some cases better journalism that challenges viewers to think rather than simply following an angry non-thinking herd.