FREE MARKET PROGRAMMING

Posted in Rants on September 27th, 2010 by Ed

America is a bit of a mess at the moment. We are rightly preoccupied with the half-dozen serious issues we currently face as a society: double-digit unemployment, 19th Century plutocrat levels of income inequality, two ongoing wars, global terrorism, and an upcoming election. So it only stands to reason that the heavyweight of investigative journalism on American television – CBS's 60 Minutes – would devote this season's premiere episode to a hard-hitting piece on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Among other things they learn that he is wildly popular in New Orleans. But it's not a fluff piece; they investigate claims about the accuracy of his arm by having him throw footballs at any number of semi-humorous targets.

How did we get here?

Let's jump back to 1960. American households with televisions received a tiny amount of broadcast news each day, at least by our current standards. People basically got the three major networks – ABC, NBC, and CBS – each of which carried a half hour each of local (think Ron Burgundy) and national (Walter Cronkite) news. More importantly, they all offered their news programming at the same time in the evening. This had two important implications. First, the amount of news on TV was comparatively small. And second, the networks' news programs competed among themselves. CBS news was on opposite NBC and ABC news, so the ratings competition was news vs. news vs. news. The way to win that hour was to provide news programming that was more appealing (although as today's ratings prove, that does not necessarily mean "better") than the other networks.

Then cable came along and broke the stranglehold of the major networks. We started to get lots of channels, and St. Ronnie reminded us that choice and competition are the greatest of all gifts. Then CNN came along (followed a decade later by Fox News, MSNBC, and so on) and gave us 24-hour news. No longer would we be slaves to the networks' schedule. We could get news whenever we wanted it! Freedom! Freeeeeeeeeedom! Just think of how much better informed our society will be when people can watch news 24-7.

Today we see that cable has indeed brought us choice – hundreds of channels, in fact. A cornucopia of dreck. A panoply of bullshit. We can watch anything at any time: news, comedy, movies, infomercials, porn, sports, "educational" programming, and endless varieties of prefabricated reality. The concept of the evening "news hour" no longer exists. The local news is still a fixture (although its actual news content is pitiful) but The News has essentially been farmed out to the heavyweights of cable. In theory this should not make a difference or it should work out to a net positive: more news, available when we want it.

The problem, of course, is that the news no longer competes with other networks' news; it competes with the 800 channels of entertainment that pump out alternatives around the clock. Yes, "serious" news shows like Meet the Press or 60 Minutes are still on. Yes, CNN et al provide news around the clock. But news programs and networks are no less ratings-driven than anything else on TV, and most people aren't that interested in watching news when they could be watching reality shows, sitcoms, sports, and what have you. The question is no longer how to get people to watch CBS News instead of NBC News. It is how to get people to watch CNN instead of Bulging Brides, college basketball, and House marathons.

Over the last decade or two we have seen what the benevolent invisible hand of the free market has done to our news. To compete with entertainment programming it looks more and more like it every day. It has become news in name only. "News" about celebrities, sports, consumer goods, and other trivialities moves from the back sections of the paper to the banner headlines. Networks linger for weeks over real but irrelevant stories like Natalee Holloway, the release of the iPad, and so on. What real news they cover is presented in carefully tested "entertaining" formats – usually a split screen or roundtable of people screaming at each other – with perhaps a full minute devoted to each Big Story of the Day.

The media is a business and it exists to make money. On TV, it does so by attracting viewers. The news networks are relied upon to provide an important public service, but they are not public servants. Neither are they a charity. They need to get and hold your attention, and today that means successfully competing with hundreds of channels offering programming that is much more interesting to an average viewer than the news. The competition between news and entertainment has produced a combination of the two that no longer fits either definition.

We want to be entertained more than we want to be informed, much as we would rather have candy for dinner than eat our vegetables when we are kids. Thus in broadcasting, "competition" is just another word for "race to the bottom." It may not be right to force another person to eat vegetables, but when the plate of broccoli is offered on a buffet alongside a thousand varieties of ice cream, cake, and pie, we know goddamn well what we'd have to do to that broccoli in order to persuade any customers to take it.

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