TV News in Rapid Decline

Originally posted: April 14, 2013

Former FCC Chairman Alfred Sikes gave an address in 1992 in which he claimed television news was too superficial and too focused on visuals. He said the weak performance of television news undermined the nation’s ability to respond to its challenges. Sikes ended his remarks by asking the broadcast news community to “rise above the limitations and conventional wisdoms” and “reinvent itself.”

Sikes’ admonition was largely ignored. Television news had little to worry about then. It was a big profit center for both local and network news operations. Citizens who wanted to know what was going on either watched television or read a newspaper.

Now 20 years later, television remains the primary source of news for most citizens – but for how long? A new report by the Pew Research Center should make television news executives ponder the need to belatedly follow Sikes’ advice and start the reinvention if they expect television to remain the primary source.

Pew’s State of the News Media report shows a television news industry in decline. News viewership was down across television in 2012, an odd result for an election year. Network early evening newscasts have lost half of their audiences in 25 years, and the average viewer is aging.

Pew reports that local news lost 6 percent of its audience in the last year, and ad revenues declined, even with all of the political ads. Forty percent of local news is now made up of weather, traffic and sports, and as Pew reports, these areas “are ripe for replacement by any number of Web- and mobile-based outlets.” Story lengths continue to drop, with only 20 percent of all stories now lasting more than a minute. Pew suggests this represents a lack of reporting depth. Only 3 percent of the local news hole goes to stories about government or politics, but 17 percent goes to crime stories and 13 percent to accidents and bizarre stories.

In cable news, live coverage of stories has declined, and more of each news hour consists of interviews. Opinion and commentary dominate cable news, even at the formerly proud CNN. About half of each CNN and Fox News hour is made up of commentary, and the figure is 85 percent at MSNBC. Live event coverage has dropped by half, and international news has also declined.

Increasing economic pressures surely account for many of the content changes reported by Pew. Filling a cable news agenda with talking heads is cheaper than doing enterprise reporting and funding international bureaus. Local stations can fill lots of time cheaply with weather graphics, traffic tower cameras and sports highlights. It is expensive to free up journalists to do watchdog coverage of government officials. The financial model of big media corporations does not have a line for impact on the community. Only bottom line impact matters to the guys in corporate towers.

Stopping the ratings decline in television news will be challenging. Television has always had trouble injecting journalistic depth into a medium that viewers consider to be largely entertainment. It is difficult to make high-impact news stories important and visually interesting to viewers with limited attention spans. It doesn’t help, however, when television news panders to viewers with daily stories about cute animals, bizarre YouTube videos and man-on-the-street interviews with people who don’t know anything. That’s cheap to produce, but adds nothing to serious community dialogue.

If television news is to maintain relevance, the main fix must come from corporate leaders who will have to cut their profit margins to allow reporters to focus on news of substance. The broadcast news industry has plenty of talented journalists who would love to report with more depth, if the time and resources were available.

The most disturbing statistic from the Pew study is that 31 percent of Americans now report they have “stopped tuning to a news outlet because it no longer provides them with the news they were accustomed to getting.” Also of concern is that only 28 percent of adults younger than 30 years old are now regular TV news viewers. Americans abandoning traditional news outlets just can’t get the information they need from Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, as Sikes feared, our citizens soon might not be informed enough to respond to the nation’s challenges.

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