Sunday, March 20, 2011

Formulas and fluff

Ever watch the evening news on TV?  Bet you're not even aware of how much this very familiar, traditional fixture of American TV owes its appearance and organization to powers-behind-the-scenes, some of whom are still relying on formats and practices that go back 30-40 years at least -- and, shockingly, in some cases, even before the birth of television.

On the one hand, the tabloid-style sensationalism, celebrity obsession, superficiality, misleading "teaser" promotional plugs, and even the style of writing actually comes from the early "yellow journalism" days of newspapers, back when publishers would stoop to anything to get a story (even if it was only "half" true), scoop the other papers, or even put rivals out of business.

The obvious opportunistic, ruthless, and even heartless tendencies of some reporters and editors would put them only about one step above mercenary killers, thieves, and scoundrels in society's pecking order.  To be fair, there were also a number of very nice, kind, caring, and thoughtful journalists, too, who would give you the shirt off their backs if your story or predicament touched them deeply.

The business motive has always been a part of journalism, of course -- even back in the days of publisher Benjamin Franklin's newspapers.  But, beginning in the mid-1970s, some large station owner groups began hiring high-priced consultants who went from city to city, selling their "guaranteed successful" news formats to whoever had enough cash to ante up…sometimes precipitating bidding wars among rival broadcasters.
One of the developments that came out of this time was the "Eyewitness News" format,  created in Philadelphia in 1965 by a young news director, Albert Primo, at KYW-TV.  He later adapted his successful news product for the ABC Network station group, especially its New York city flagship station, WABC-TV.  This format also became known as "happy talk" news, because of its mandated on-camera bantering, quips, and hijinks that were more entertainment than journalism.  The various reporters and anchors competed for laughs, rather than journalistic scoops.  Personality seemed to become more important than public service, and the viewing public soon found itself with an increasingly more superficial, slanted, and sometimes silly product, not much different than the clowning around on that famous sitcom about a TV news team, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

A close cousin to Eyewitness News was the "Action News"
format, also developed in Philadelphia (at the Triangle TV station group), which was similarly transplanted by TV news consultants to countless other stations across the country.
The news formats we see today still relay on some of those original consultants' commandments, like emphasizing controversy, conflict, crime, and other elements that are more "anti-social" than uplifting.  Is it any wonder that many of us viewers feel more depressed, hopeless, and fearful, after watching the nightly news?

Want to change things?  Take action by talking to your local TV station -- or by putting pressure on advertisers who sponsor the newscasts (as one who was working in TV during a comparable public action campaign in Cleveland in the late 1970s, I can assure you that it works).  Complain to local legislators, government leaders, etc.  Check out the Radio-Television News Directors Association, to see what you can learn about modern-day broadcast journalism.

And, as a last resort, turn off the TV.  Ultimately, if more people did that, the ripple in the ratings might finally make station owners sit up and take notice.

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