Television News: Riding the Shockwaves

By Plante, James F. | Public Relations Journal, November 1989 | Go to article overview
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Television News: Riding the Shockwaves


Plante, James F., Public Relations Journal


In the mid-1980s, many people who had made television news their life's work began to get the uneasy feeling that the jig was up. They were heard to mutter things like"The networks will never be the engines that drive television news again," and "I'm glad I was there before the crash'"

Television news professionals were reacting to a series of shockwaves that were reverberating through their industry. The waves were set off early in the decade by the convergence of several factors, among them: a new administration that ,Ams pursuing deregulation in all phases of American life, including broadcasting; a growing number of television outlets, both traditional and non-traditional; and a business climate that dared to foster the previously unthinkable notion of putting the broadcasting entities in play along with all of the other companies being merged and acquired.

Since TV's very early days, the three network news divisions had "owned" television news. The networks set the journalistic and technical standards, and the rest of the world followed,

But in only two decades, technical news considerations had gone from wishing forcolor film at faster speeds, to avoiding foreign governments' transmission systems in favor of a news division's own portable system. News producers went from worrying about whether their film would be out of the "soup" on time to wondering where to locate an earth station that had been flown in on a Lear jet.

At the same time, the number of people covering a national or international story for American television ballooned, as more and more local stations acquired the hardware and expertise that had once been the networks' private preserve.

Internal ferment

Life back at the network headquarters also evolved. Gone were the traditional broadcasters who had leanred to live with -and had even felt a certain commitment to-federal license regulations. They were displaced by new, bottom-line generals who were playing by a deregulated handbook. And instead of three network armies fighting on all fronts, now there were new networks, plus the growing cable menace, independent news services and other guerrilla groups.

The networks could no longer even set the agenda. In the battle for the hearts and minds of viewers, it was the viewers -aided by that ultimate high-tech weapon, the remote control-who began calling the shots. The networks' share of the prime-time viewing audience dropped from 92 percent in 1978 to 67 percent last year.

The chaos spawned a new urgency to stand out. Television news executives began talking about making their programs look different and making them more compelling to a fickle viewing public. According to the new gospel, viewers' attention spans were shrinking, along with their tolerance for mundane pictures and graphics.

Other developments reinforced the sense of upheaval. For instance, the 1988 presidential campaign was variously described as the dirtiest, the most insubstantial, the most negative political campaign in memory. (Of course, many of the same charges had been leveled against Campaign '84.) There was the rise of "trash television," including "professional wrestling:' "The Morton Downey, Jr. Show" and "Geraldo." Cable sports companies began ruminating about developing high school-level amateur athletics as a new, exciting programming genre.

Television news is trying to settle into this anarchistic, viewer-driven environment and carry on. It is doing so by trial and error, and the jury is still out on whether it will find a new evolutionary mode or simply disintegrate.

Psyching out producers

All of this gives producers headaches. Fundamental questions such as, "What makes a good TV news story?" must be rethought.

The question goes to the heart of professional communicators' interest in television news. They must grasp that news organizations are striving desperately to stand out and to satisfy viewers' needs for total video gratification: instant fact, thrill and resolution.

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