Research Finds Broadcast Editorials Continue to Wane

By Spiceland, David | The Masthead, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview
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Research Finds Broadcast Editorials Continue to Wane

Spiceland, David, The Masthead

GROWING UP IN DETROIT, I became accustomed to television editorials. I didn't always understand what they were saying, and I remember my mother once turned off the TV during a commentary program because it was "controversial." No sex or violence . . . just controversy.

When I left the Motor City to attend college in Tennessee, I was surprised at the dearth of television editorials.

Eventually I worked at a few radio and television stations as a reporter and sometimes as a disc jockey. Years later I decided to teach and entered a graduate program. For my dissertation I returned to an old topic. I knew that fewer stations were editorializing, and I linked that issue with the Fairness Doctrine. I reasoned that editorials were an outgrowth of a station's policy to engage in controversial programming.

Although television editorializing increased in the 1960s, it became clear through the 1980s that the trend was receding. Fewer editorials and more editorial writers being handed pink slips marked a disturbing trend to some. Over the past 40 years a number of television stations have discontinued the practice of editorializing.

At one time estimates indicated that more than half of all television stations were editorializing. My research appears to confirm that fewer television stations are editorializing -- and for some surprising reasons.

History of television editorializing

Coming up with an exact number of stations that have editorialized over the past 40 years is difficult. Various studies conducted throughout the 1960s and 1970s placed the number of television stations editorializing in the neighborhood of 50% to 75%.

Most of the research suggested an increase in editorializing by television stations from the early 1960s through about 1975. It also appears that broadcast editorializing dramatically increased after Newton Minow became commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961. Minow, appointed by President Kennedy to head the FCC, became an activist who is best known for his "vast wasteland" speech to broadcasters in 1961.

Previous studies have cited several factors that best distinguish television stations that editorialize.

1.) Television stations with larger staffs tend to editorialize more.

2.) VHF stations tend to editorialize more than UHF stations. This is probably because VHF stations tend to have larger audiences, are usually network affiliated, and have greater financial resources available.

3.) Television stations in Top 50 markets appear to editorialize more, possibly because those stations have increased resources and are better staffed.

4.) The larger its news staff, the more likely a station is to editorialize.

5.) The ownership position of the station and the position of station management can determine editorial policy.

6.) Network affiliation appears to be important. Although in previous studies not much difference appeared between network affiliates, CBS affiliates did tend to editorialize more and NBC affiliates were the least likely to editorialize among the traditional three networks.

Not surprisingly, independent stations tended not to editorialize. This was probably because they had less revenue and a modest news effort.

7.) The geographical region of the country appears to be an important indicator of a station's editorializing commitment. A greater percentage of stations in the East tend to editorialize.

1992 survey

For my dissertation I surveyed United States commercial television stations with network affiliation. In early 1992, surveys were sent to all 694 commercial stations in the U.S. affiliated with one of the four major networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Television station managers were asked a variety of questions about the Fairness Doctrine and the extent of editorializing at their station.

Survey questions focused on several areas.

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Research Finds Broadcast Editorials Continue to Wane


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