television news in the United States is television at its best,
and at its worst. In local and regional newscasts broadcasters and
cable companies can fulfill the oft forgotten goal of public service,
earning accolades and audience loyalty. But as the site of intense
local competition and substantial advertising revenue, journalism
and public service often take second place to ratings grabbing gimmickry.
Despite taking knocks for its formulaic approach and irresponsible
antics, local and regional TV news has grown steadily since the
1970's, and has, with CNN, stolen ratings from network news.
earliest experiments with television in 1930 included simple newscasts,
and the first stations licensed attempted to provide local news.
Most local television stations began creating their own newscasts
the day they went on the air in the 1950s or 1960s. Doing so provided
instant evidence of community involvement and an identity amid otherwise
indistinguishable fare. But early local television newscasts were
brief and non-visual, for videotape technology, debuting in 1956,
was too cumbersome to leave the studio and live news remotes were
all but impossible for their cost and complexity. Some stations
purchased newsfilm from newsreel companies. 16 millimeter film,
while an excellent local newsgathering medium in the field, was
costly and required at least three and a half hours to be processed,
edited, and set up for the complex process of playing it back into
a live newscast.
the early 1970s color film replaced black and white, for viewers
were buying color sets. Visual coverage of national news increased
as the networks trusted their principal affiliates to cover important
stories and send them to New York for inclusion in network newscasts.
Until the mid 1970s quality television news remained the near exclusive
domain of the networks, and particularly of CBS, for stations could
not match the look or experience of the networks and rarely profited
from news. Many stopped trying.
Between the mid-1970s and early 1980s came a local news explosion,
attributable to a synergy of technology and economics. Technology
led as Sony introduced the 3/4" video cassette recorder, a portable
machine capable of recording 20 minutes on a cassette. With it came
simple and reliable editing equipment permitting the rapid assembly
of stories from the field. Ikegami and RCA produced shoulder borne
television cameras to be used with the field recorders. Electronic
News Gathering (ENG) was born, and by 1975 65% of local stations
in the United States were using ENG equipment, though many continued
to use film into the 1980s. The earliest ENG equipment was expensive,
so all but the wealthiest stations adopted it slowly. Field camera
and recorder were later combined into the most popular news gathering
tool of the 1980s and 1990s, the Betacam.
rapid development of ENG technology was spurred more by local stations
than by the networks, a symbiosis between local broadcasters and
equipment manufacturers which continues. With the technological
revolution came broader conceptions of local news. News could be
more visual, immediate, and exciting. ENG allowed for more preproduced
material--news packages--allowing for more news and greater advertising
revenue. The ability to produce news with greater quantity and appeal
caused many stations to add newscasts and those with existing newscasts
to expand their news operations. News became a local station's profit
center. And with the rapid growth of cable television, many local
cable operators established newscasts of their own, often in towns
and cities not well served by broadcast TV news.
an early and late evening newscast, at the very least, to be filled
each day, news directors began to develop new strategies, and looser
standards of journalism, to fill the time and attract viewers. By
the 1990s, many stations produced six hours or more of news daily.
The forte of ENG is its ability to record plentiful pictures anywhere,
and get them on the air quickly. That ability brought the beginning
of the end of quality television journalism as local TV began to
present conflict or minor tragedy (such as accidents and fires--never
in short supply) as the news of the day, and make stories shorter
and snappier, especially when they are not easily illustrated. Having
exciting visual coverage, especially if the competition didn't,
often became the leading criteria for story selection. Reports on
city hall or problems in the schools offered little visual excitement
and consistently took a back seat to sensational but unimportant
the mid-1970s to the present, newscasts have been fierce battlegrounds
for viewer loyalty. Stations earn a substantial portion of their
revenue from their newscasts and aggressively promote their news
through the day. Popular syndicated entertainment programming leading
into newscasts is used to deliver viewers to a station's news product,
and a popular newscast, in turn, boosts ratings for an entire evening's
programming. Stations peddle newscasts and newscasters with billboards
and other local media. But when programming and promotional strategies
fail, stations turn to high paid hired guns to deliver the audience.
"news doctors", or news consultants, are blamed for most of the
ills of TV news. As station owners added or expanded newscasts,
or launched a new drive for market dominance, they have consistently
turned from the expertise of their own managers to the expertise
of consultants with a track record of ratings increases and a supposedly
scientific approach. The best known consulting firm is Frank N.
Magid and Associates, but there are dozens of others. For several
tens of thousands of dollars these firms conduct viewer surveys
and focus groups. The results--a vague indication of what a few
viewers think they like--are used to rebuild newscasts from the
ground up. Newscasts are made "marketable."
gimmicks offered by consultants or newly hired news directors have
usually included some combination of the following: News sets may
be rebuilt to be more modern, homey, or just bigger than the competition's.
Newscasters and reporters are often fired and replaced and if not,
are always "remade" in appearance and on-air persona. Consultants
maintain vast nationwide videotape files of news talent, and records
of their respective ratings, to help clients find the perfect personalities.
News directors and other managers are often replaced. Music, graphics,
and other aesthetic elements are updated, sometimes requiring extravagant
a new format is usually adopted. The most grating of these, known
as "happy talk" (usually under the "Eyewitness News" designation),
has mercifully died away in most markets. At its height in the late
1970s, the format sacrificed the delivery of information for almost
non-stop witty, sometimes prurient, banter between attractive, if
cerebrally vacant, on-air personalties.
common formats, some still in evidence, include "Action News", with
quick young reporters and barely edited video of the day's highly
visual carnage, or "News Center", emphasizing reporting and relevance
to viewers. Live news coverage, as stations acquire the technology,
is invariably made the newscast's raison d'etre. This often puts
reporters in ridiculous situations, filing live reports from long
deserted locations, without the depth and quality a pre-produced
report would provide. These trends evidence the emphasis on entertainment
which has pervaded local and regional TV news.
these variations in theme, the genre of local news in the U.S. has
maintained an astounding consistency of format from its earliest
days. Newscasts are divided into four or more segments, separated
by commercials. News, broadly defined, generally comes in the first
two segments, often including a superficial recap of world and national
events when local news is sparse. News is delivered by one or two
anchors (usually male and female), and contains a mix of readers
(with the anchor delivering the story with an over-the-shoulder
graphic providing a one word or one picture summary), voice-overs
(with anchors narrating over videotape), packages (pre-produced
stories by reporters), and live reports.
third and fourth segments are usually sports and weather (with the
one of greatest local interest coming first). Weather finds either
a telegenic weathercaster or somewhat less telegenic meteorologist,
maneuvering in front of a chroma-key wall, causing them to appear
over computer generated maps and graphics. Stations unable to afford
computers will chroma-key paper maps behind the weathercaster, a
method one step removed from the earliest technique of sticking
magnetic cloud and sun symbols on a large metallic map. Sports is
usually anchored by an athletic male, who voices over endless video
highlights of local and national games and "scoreboard" graphics.
Finally, the news anchors conclude with a light or humorous human
interest story, and a friendly farewell. Hour-long news formats
and 24-hour regional formats have more segments, but add little
in variety apart from extra feature stories.
the lack of challenges to its conventions are an indication, local
and regional television news achieved stagnation a decade ago, yet
the genre continues to flourish. That is because it has long served
a number of purposes apart from pleasing its audience--a task it
rarely does well. Its most urgent task is to persuade audiences
of its own relevance to their lives. For its very survival it attempts
to demonstrate it is something that national newscasts, and other
TV fare, are not. But localism alone is no guarantee of relevance,
so occasionally local news resorts to exaggeration. Routine storms
are presented as threats to life and limb, errant teenagers as deadly
gangs. Populist or consumer advocacy stories often pose as news.
Coverage of mundane school sports is used to draw children and their
ratings-providing parents. In a trend of the 1990s, some stations
have merged the content and aesthetics of tabloid newsmagazine shows
with a colloquial reporting style in hopes of attracting a young
journalism is not entirely absent in television news, but rarely
does it come before economic considerations. Active discovery of
news, especially that which society's powerful prefer hidden, is
inherently costly, giving rise to the common allegation that TV
news legitimates the status quo. Such journalism requires the allocation
of station resources and personnel over long periods to produce
a single story, when the same resources can be allocated toward
producing many stories selected through passive discovery. Thus
passive discovery, the dependence on police scanners, wire services
and other media, and press releases and news conferences, is the
norm. Under the Reagan administration, enforcement of the Fairness
Doctrine ended, and the Doctrine itself was suspended in 1987. Without
the threat of official sanction for imbalanced reporting, news operations
had the ability to move toward more biased and sensational coverage
which could be more economical than attempts to provide balance,
and more appealing to targeted audiences.
news prefers brief and simple stories and preexisting frames of
explanation, for providing explanation and context costs time and
money. Television's inbuilt advantage over other media--visual explanation--is
rarely used well in local newscasts, and occasionally misused. Images
provided to stations at no cost by corporate public relations firms
("Video Press Releases"), or by government, often find their way
into local stories without credit, and ancient, irrelevant, but
costless, "file footage" often illustrates reports. TV news writing
is too frequently cliche ridden, uninformative, and of little relevance
to accompanying visuals. Corrections and retractions are rare. But
excellence in television news does exist, and is recognized in annual
awards by the Associated Press and numerous industry organizations.
In rare but remarkable instances local television news goes on the
air full time to report on local disasters or major events. When
it resists sensationalism and premature reporting, such coverage
can provide vital public service beyond the means of other media.
news operations are fairly autonomous departments within broadcast
or cable companies. The senior manager of the news department is
the news director, and may be assisted by one or more executive
producers. These individuals are responsible for controlling the
general look and feel of their newscast while satisfying the demands
of their corporate superiors. Control of day to day newsgathering
operations is the domain of the assignment editor--an individual
with the unenviable task of keeping appraised of all the news, all
the time, and ensuring that everything of importance is covered.
center of incoming information and the dispatcher of a station's
news coverage resources, the assignment editor has considerable
power to determine what gets covered.
successful production of each newscast is the responsibility of
a producer, who in the smallest markets may double as anchor or
news director. The producer must ensure that every element of the
production is ready at airtime, and deal with any problems or changes
while the newscast is on the air. In large news departments this
involves the coordination of dozens of reporters, videographers
(often also known as photojournalists or photographers), writers,
feature producers, videotape editors, graphic artists, and other
specialized staff. They work closely with the on-air talent--the
anchors and sports and weathercasters--to develop the lineup (story
order) of the newscast and write portions of the show not provided
by reporters or news writers.
technical production of a newscast is usually accomplished by a
staff independent of the news department. Studio production is supervised
by a studio director (or newscast director), who works closely with
the producers and talent to ensure that each production is flawless.
A well directed newscast is one that calls no attention to its complex
technical elements. In larger markets the studio director coordinates
a large production team, but in some small markets may perform a
remarkable solo ballet of switching, mixing audio, timing, and myriad
other tasks. This accounts for the occasional dead air or miscued
videotape in these markets. It is becoming increasingly common for
larger news operations to cut back on production staff through the
installation of robotic studio cameras and other automation.
television news is highly dependent on new technologies, regional
news even more so. Without the latest technology stations can neither
gather news as efficiently or broadly as their competition, nor
present as professional an image. But while some basic production
equipment provides higher quality at lower cost than a decade ago,
other important technologies require massive investment beyond the
reach of smaller news departments. The next major development after
the field recorder was the rapid increase in use of microwave systems
to transmit live or taped stories from remote locations (also called
ENG). Now all but the smallest stations operate one, and often many,
microwave equipped vehicles.
technologies like newsroom computerization have improved the state
of television journalism. By the late 1980s most news departments
were using computers to write and archive scripts, at the very least.
Many had begun to use integrated news production software designed
to simplify writing TV news scripts, arrange them for a newscast,
and deliver them to teleprompters for the news anchors to read.
Television journalists now make extensive use of computerized information
retrieval services and databases, and many television stations have
established their own Internet addresses to provide on-line services
and encourage viewer feedback.
technology to most change the television news industry in the last
decade was Satellite News Gathering (SNG). SNG made regional television
news possible, permitted local stations to cover national and international
events, and dramatically extended the newsgathering reach of stations.
Local TV news was thereby de-localized. One entrepreneur, Stanley
E. Hubbard II, deserves credit for beginning the SNG revolution.
Domestic satellites launched in the early 1980s had the new capability
of handling signals at a higher, more efficient, frequency band
than before--the "Ku band". Hubbard began Conus Communications to
purchase time on these satellites and offer it to a "cooperative"
of local stations. The stations would be able to cheaply reserve
satellite time in five minute increments to "uplink" a story from
the field to their studio, and to the rest of the stations in the
cooperative. Stations began to purchase sophisticated Satellite
News Vehicles (SNV) to drive to the scene of major stories anywhere
and transmit localized reports. Not coincidentally, Hubbard also
sold SNVs. The networks established plans to help affiliated stations
with the cost of purchasing SNVs (at around $300,000 each) in order
to create their own cooperatives of live sources nationwide and
ensure they alone would receive any important story a network-funded
SNG has contributed to a massive proliferation of visual sources
for television news during the last decade. Stations may receive
stories from one or more satellite cooperatives they belong to,
their own network (if an affiliate), CNN (if they have an exchange
agreement, as many do), international video news agencies (at the
largest operations), other specialized subscription services, public
relations firms, and their own news gathering resources. Stations
may not always have the perfect visuals to illustrate a story, but
visuals are never lacking. Many stations also encourage viewers
to submit "news" they have recorded with their home camcorder. A
final TV news innovation has emerged as the gimmick of the 1990s--helicopter
news coverage. Larger stations buy or lease helicopters to get videographers
to distant events quickly, to provide live aerial coverage of breaking
news, especially the ever-popular police chase, and to serve as
airborne microwave relays, extending a station's live coverage range.
They have often become news themselves by interfering in and participating
in emergency situations.
proliferation of sources and the ability to instantly and inexpensively
send and receive stories within virtually unlimited geographic areas
gave rise to regional news, which has emerged in several forms.
An early example of regional television news was an agreement between
seven SNG-equipped Florida television stations to share resources
and personnel, presenting an image of seamless statewide coverage
to their audiences. In 1986 News 12 Long Island was started by Cablevision
and other investors. Using a mix of ENG and SNG, the cable news
channel presents 24 hour news coverage, often live, of the vast
Long Island area. Other local and regional 24 hour cable news operations
have since been created, including some carried by different cable
operators spread over a large area, such as New England Cable News.
Twenty-four-hour news stations, usually on cable, have been established
in several large cities.
the flurry of station sales and purchases taking place during the
1980s, station ownership by non-local investors became common. In
a sharp contrast to the heavy investment in news of the 1970s, many
news departments are run on shoestring budgets to maintain the illusion
of community service at little cost to the corporation. In many
small and medium markets, news departments operate with a staff
of a dozen or fewer, and eager young reporters work as "one man
bands," acting as videographer and reporter on the several stories
they cover daily. Their salaries are among the lowest for college
graduates. Owners unwilling to invest in news quality often close
their news departments and counter the competition's newscasts with
syndicated programs. Some news departments are experimenting with
new ways to pay their own way. News or weather programs are provided
to other stations in the same market which have no news department
of their own. Videotapes of news stories are sometimes offered for
brave attempts are made, television news rarely gains the audience
loyalty it constantly seeks, for as many researchers have pointed
out, it rarely understands its audience. Local television journalists
produce their product daily with little knowledge or concern about
who is watching and why (though they do better in this regard than
their national counterparts). When stations do research their audience,
they ignore the substance of their newscast for the superficialities.
It is rarely determined how much viewers actually learn from TV
news, but existing research suggests it is very little, and quite
possibly not what producers intend. Distant ownership makes the
lack of connection with audiences more acute. While television news
has come far, a reorientation toward genuine local public service
and away from entertainment and marketability must emerge before
the genre can be considered mature.
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See also Cable
News Network; Craft,
Christine; News, Network;