Before You See The Sunday Shows: Thoughts on Broadcast News

Television Set AntiqueEvery time there’s a rumor about replacing hosts on the Sunday morning political shows, or when the dismal ratings are released, we can easily project another gazillion tweets, posts, emails, etc. about the demise of the broadcast media and it’s lack of imagination, depth, and ‘truthiness.’  Before declaring we live in the Worst Times Ever, or that the corporate media is an accessory to the diminishment of ‘real news,’ there are a few things to consider.

Advertisers in the Wasteland

We, the viewing public, aren’t the real consumers of television broadcasting — or the newspapers for that matter.  The people who pay for the productions are the advertisers.  Always have been.  And who is paying the freight?

In 2013 AdAge reported that “Meet The Press” had about 3 million viewers, and that approximately 55% of them had annual incomes above $100,000.  Who would want to speak to that audience?

“Boeing Co., targeting an audience of military executives, is the exclusive sponsor of the show’s online content as well as its apps; it is also a major broadcast sponsor. Other advertisers include the American Petroleum Institute, Citigroup, General Electric Co. and Xerox. “It’s a gray audience and exceedingly affluent,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media. “These people are interested in politics and decision-making, and how that can impact business.” [AdAge]

A gray, affluent, audience.  Does this help explain why Meet the Press rounded up all the usual neo-conservative suspects for its discussions about the renewed violence in Iraq?  [MMFA]  When you target “an audience of military executives” what might the preferred guests want to express?  A gray, affluent, (read: Republican) audience doesn’t particularly want to watch the debunking of the various and sundry myths about Benghazi, so Meet the Press didn’t have that exercise on offer.  [MMFA]  This is an audience which wants to hear about politics, so that’s what they get — politics, not policy. They want to hear about decision making — especially people making decisions which relate to their (oil, energy, financial, banking, military weapons and supplies) businesses.

NBC has done some tinkering with the Meet the Press format, smaller segments, more interviews, but when the target audience is ‘gray and affluent’ and ‘military executives’  the network shouldn’t be surprised that it’s still running third in the 25-54 year old (people who spend money) demographic. [MediaBistro]

Progressives, liberals, independents, and others of a more centrist bent may watch the program — but they’re well advised that they’re the minority in the statistical universe of the Meet The Press audience.

Where’s the audience who is not ‘gray, affluent, and a business executive?’  Remember this chart from the Pew Research publications in 2012?

Where Get News ChartThey’re more likely to get their news from digital sources than from print or radio.

Getting news from television broadcasters? That percentage has dropped from 68% in 1991 to 55% in 2012.

It’s not that journalism is necessarily dead, or dying, but it’s increasingly digital.  In 2011 about 8.6% of newspapers were digital, a number which increased to 14.2% only a year later. By 2012, the digital readership of the New York Times was greater than its print readership.  [SMH]  And it’s not just newspapers and major networks:

“…the regular audience for cable news also has aged. In 2006 and 2008, there were only modest age differences in regular cable news viewership. But in the current survey, more than twice as many of those 65 and older as those younger than 30 say they regularly watch cable news (51% vs. 23%).” [Pew]

Rather more than tinkering with the ‘product,’ NBC, and perhaps the other Sunday Morning Shows, may want to consider this analysis from two years ago, and at the same time give some thought to another question:  In your eagerness to please a specific set of deep pocketed advertisers have you already written off efforts to connect with, and grow, a wider spectrum of audience members?

The Perils of Partisanship

Red ChannelsWe’ve seen this movie before.  The power of some advertisers can be a hazard to our public health.  There are fewer people now who remember Red Channels.  Most people have some familiarity with McCarthyism, or with the activities of House UnAmerican Affairs Committee, but the pressure on major networks to cancel programs because of the political beliefs of the participants was boosted in June 1950 by the publishing of Red Channels.

“…the process (of Black Listing)  became public in June 1950 with the publication of Red Channels, a 213-page compilation of the alleged Communist affiliations of 151 actors, writers, musicians, and other radio and television entertainers. The book, which appeared three days before the start of the Korean War, was published by American Business Consultants, an outfit established in 1947 by a trio of former FBI agents who wanted to make the public aware of the information about communism that the bureau had collected. Initially funded by Alfred Kohlberg and the Catholic Church, the group became one of the anti-Communist network’s main enterprises, offering its services in exposing and eliminating Communists to corporations, foundations, and government agencies. Red Channels was a special show business supplement to the exposes of individuals and organizations that appeared in the group’s regular newsletter, Counterattack.” [Schrecker UPenn]

The pamphlet had enough clout with advertisers and networks that as prominent a celebrity as George Burns dropped a cast member from his show in 1951 because his name appeared in the list.  [NPR]  Film and television actress Marsha Hunt was offer shows by three networks, all of whom backed out when her name appeared in the Black List. [NPR]  There is more complexity to the Case of Sam Spade. Was the famous detective, voiced by Howard Duff, taken off the air by NBC in 1950 because Duff’s name was among those in Red Channels? Or, was the main problem due to continued litigation by Warner Brothers who clutched the Maltese Falcon, and the rights thereto, with an iron grip? [Wik] [ROKradioRadio Spirits concludes that the program staggered to an end when the sponsor, Wildroot (hair product) refused to renew its support if Duff remained associated with the program.

Even a Syracuse, NY supermarket chain owner, Laurence Johnson, made an impact.

“Johnson, an owner of six supermarkets in central New York, pressured CBS to stop employing comedian Jack Gilford and any other “‘subversive'” (p. 124). With the war against the Communists in Korea heating up, Johnson sent telegrams to network sponsors, in which he wrote: “‘Why are you helping to kill our friends in Korea?'”  Small-city radio stations resisted Johnson’s strong-arm tactics, but the national networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors often capitulated.” [HNetRev]

One of the obvious lessons of the Red Channels/McCarthy Era is that pressure on commercial broadcasting networks can work to exclude both participants and their ideas from public  news and entertainment.  The more participants and perspectives are excluded the more narrow the range of the discussion.  If the advertisers prefer, as in the case of Mr. Johnson, that no views other than that which appeals to the gray, affluent, and 100% American, then how does a network hope to attract a wider audience?  If the networks have to please such advertisers, while alternately insulting, misinforming, or dismissing the views of those not aligned with them, then how do they cope with this modern incarnation of McCarthyism?

It may be physically impossible for a person to manually strangle himself, but it might just be possible for network executives to accomplish this in a corporate context.

The Financial Stakes Race

The struggles of CNN may be a case in point.

On May 1, 2014 CNN announced another round of layoffs across several divisions. [TheWrap] In January 2001, the network laid off about 10% of its workforce.  There were to be smaller news-gathering teams.  They would be emphasizing “breaking news.” [LATimes]  Neither of these announcements, 13 years apart, should come as any surprise to those who have been following the corporate career of Time Warner.  It’s not enough to merely provide the best news coverage, or even the latest — it must be done with an eye toward the old and familiar Blunt Instrument, shareholder value.

None of the networks are immune.

The restructuring of news gathering, be it streamlining, pooling, or team creation, has meant there are fewer reporters in fewer places covering fewer stories. The unintended consequences of all this paring and scraping is fewer experts, covering fewer stories, in less depth.  Little wonder opinion and speculation are winning the competition for news and context during broadcasts.

Nor does it seem as though “Creativity” is running well on the inside rail in this race.  Television can all too often be a derivative medium.  Is there a successful comedy show — then expect spin offs — not really new.  Is there a successful news magazine, a 60 Minutes for example, then expect the competitors to launch their own — not necessarily a new form of show. If it is necessary to sell commercial time, then there’s a coterminous pressure to tell the advertiser: Look how successful “Party Time in Los Angeles” is! We can replicate that with “Party Time in Pensacola!” It would be nice if all new shows, both news and entertainment, were truly new — but that would be to ignore decades of derivative programming.

We Interrupt this broadcast…

To tell you what you already know.  We have a commercial broadcast news structure which is dependent on advertising for its existence.  The dependency on advertising means that those who purchase commercial air time have a profound effect on the type of fare served to the public.  In the best of times this can produce a wide range of diversified views, in the worst it can stifle the production and the producers casting them into an ever narrowing range of acceptable perspectives.  And, given the need to ‘sell’ advertisers on the safety of their investment in commercial time, the past will always have  a heavy hand on the present.

The ‘kids’ may already have the answer to this problematic situation; as long as they have their fingers (and thumbs) clutching their mobile devices — Surfing, Googling, and Networking their way into more information than any old time newspaper could put into print.  Meanwhile, the Gray & Affluent will attend to the comfort of their convictions, secure in their recliners that they will hear from their sympathetic advertisers the message they meant to receive before they even hit the power switch.

 

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