FREE MARKET PROGRAMMING

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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27 Responses to “FREE MARKET PROGRAMMING”

  1. daphne Says:

    There really is a program called Bulging Brides? That is rather alarming.

  2. DavidR Says:

    Isn't the real problem our culture's vapid tastes? I mean, lots of other countries (every developed one and many of the developing ones) have access to lots and lots of cable, but have a populace that still cares about hard news, and gets to watch it.

  3. Entomologista Says:

    PBS still has the news, which is what my parents watch.

  4. Vanguard Says:

    We in Pakistan are going through the same phase as we have plethora of TV channels (more than 100 now) now compared to just 2 a decade ago. Sometimes to get ratings/viewership or for sensationalization, the news networks even showed body parts in full color after suicide bomb blasts (though it has been toned down voluntarily after backlash in editorials and letter to editors). Hence the news channels (in Pakistan media regulator requires you to describe yourself as news channel or entertainment channel) have become shit competing with entertainment channels which unsurprisingly also throw up shitty entertainment. The advantages of choice and benefits of capitalism.

  5. Fiddlin' Bill Says:

    I keep meaning to watch 60 Minutes, but usually there's a game on.

  6. comrade x Says:

    Reminds me of the old 19th century newspapers- tons of sensationalized bullshit, quack cures, and telling Big Lies in order to get us into wars. " 9-11s Iraq Links" sounds like the same tune as " Dastardly Spainards Blow Up The USS Maine" .

  7. anotherbozo Says:

    It's such an elegant spiral – lousy, underfunded education + don't-rock-the-boat "news" > a lazy, stupid populace > more underfunded education + more "news" > even stupider populace. and plutocrats hire more guards for their gated communities.

  8. displacedCapitalist Says:

    I stopped watching TeeVee in 2004; haven't missed a thing since.

    (Though my life has since been squandered by teh interwebz.)

  9. displacedCapitalist Says:

    The local news is still a fixture (although its actual news content is pitiful)

    How can you say that when Local News gave us this gem:

    "Hide yo' kids! Hide yo' wife! and hide yo' husbands cuz' they're rapin' everybody out theyah!"

  10. doug Says:

    Our 'local' news has recently started having 'local' news from many states away.eg cat rescued on west coast from an east coast 'local' news. WTF?

  11. Hazy Davy Says:

    Cheering you and your cavalcade of crap. (I had to compete with cornucopia of dreck.)

    But wasn't 60 Minutes *always* a variety/infotainment news source? (I still have a letter from them in the 70's, regarding a "revolutionary paper airplance" they featured as their big story, and my plea to send me folding instructions.)

    The race to the bottom doesn't happen without the environment described by DavidR.

    We get the news source we deserve.

  12. John Says:

    As Davy said, we only get the news we deserve. Fox's popularity has risen rather proportionately to the number of people who don't care that it's a naked, blatant propaganda outlet. They edit clips to make people say things they actually didn't, and people know this and point it out with proof, and the Fox viewers don't care.

    The other news outlets have, of course, followed suit to try to keep up in the almighty ratings department.

    And there is no massive public outcry. There are no rallies or marches to bring truth back to news. Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity is aimed at extremism and eliminationist rhetoric in general, but not the lies posing as facts that we now call "news" in specific.

    We only get the news we deserve.

  13. Prufrocky Says:

    Actually, I thought last night's 60 Minutes episode was a fairly strong one. A long story on just how bad things are for the army outposts on the Afghan-Pakistan border and a surprisingly no-BS feature on the Lower Manhattan Muslim Community Center. Certainly an improvement on any of the Network newscasts I've seen lately.

    Now if Andy Rooney would just retire.

  14. Sator Arepo Says:

    "Yes, "serious" news shows like Meet the Press…"

    Ha ha ha! Oh, Ed, you're in rare form today, my friend.

    Oh, mercy. Good times.

  15. 400metres Says:

    I shared this elsewhere, but the point of this post is exactly what made me so irate last Friday while listening to NPR's OnPoint broadcast.

    It was their end-of-the-week news wrap-up discussion wherein all the media guests agreed that the GOP's Pledge, if actually implemented, would surely destroy our government and thereby our country. However, one journo then followed up this startling admission with this: "It's up to Obama and the Democrats to get this message across to voters before November's election."

    This just blew my mind and I yelled in the general direction of my stereo "I thought that was your fucking job, you nitwit!"

    It also reminds me of the explanation offered by NYT reporter Peter Goodman's regarding his choice to leave our nation's most respected daily newspaper to join Huffington Post:

    "'For me it's a chance to write with a point of view,' Goodman says in an interview. 'It's sort of the age of the columnist. With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what's going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.'

    Goodman, who spent a decade at The Washington Post before his three years at the Times, says he will still rely on facts and not engage in 'ranting.' And while he was happy at the newspaper, he says, he found he was engaged in 'almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.'"

  16. acer Says:

    Word to George WS Trow.

  17. CaptBackslap Says:

    doug: Another Mr. Show sketch comes true!

  18. HoosierPoli Says:

    PBS and NPR are still doing their damndest to keep the media world from simply spiraling into oblivion. But who knows how much longer they can keep that up. Old people won't be around to protect it from their congressmen forever, and I get the sense that the young ones coming up are not exactly the Sesame Street generation.

  19. Prudence Says:

    Long ago and far away, I very much wanted to work at 60. And Nightline, before it too made a lateral move towards celebrity felch and underarm deodorant expose's.

    For the media insider's viewpoint on how one network (ABC) stopped having a news division when it started being run by Mean Girls, I give you the innocuous NY Observer article that sparked 6+ pages of searing smackdown by current and former ABC staffers. The comments are fascinating, by about page 6, you've got people who are/were high up and on the inside commenting. Law suits, revenge, the whole 9. http://www.observer.com/2010/media/top-abc-news-producer-leaving-network-become-high-school-guidance-counselor-0?page=5

  20. Ben Says:

    "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."

    Are you suggesting that we should slather news broadcasters like Glenn Beck in cheese sauce?

  21. doug Says:

    Thanks Capt. Good one. I will try to laugh rather than cuss the next time ….

  22. Prudence Says:

    And for anyone who thinks NPR is above this sort of once-over-lightly bullshit, I just read this: http://www.npr.org/blogs/waitwait/2010/09/27/130159947/the-corrections-our-bad-senator-feingold#commentBlock

    Pull quote: "Last week on the show, we did a story about a recent ad from Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin which showed him in front of his home in the Badger State. It was sort of a testament to his Wisconsin bona fides, but we

  23. Prudence Says:

    WTH?

    The full quote: "Last week on the show, we did a story about a recent ad from Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin which showed him in front of his home in the Badger State. It was sort of a testament to his Wisconsin bona fides, but we’d read that instead of filming the ad in front of his actual house, he used special effects. You have to admit that would be hilarious, if it were true. We found this story on a blog, where we’ve just learned people are allowed to post things they haven’t fact-checked."

    And this is NPR, bitching that some other blog hadn't fact-checked, when it's their fucking JOB to do exactly that!

  24. Paul W. Luscher Says:

    Newton Minow wasn't kidding when he called TV the "vast wasteland." And that was how many years ago? TV has always been about "dumbing down"–and now we are witnessing the effect of 50-plus years of this.

    If democracy requires a well-informed electorate, we're in real trouble. What we have now is the intellectual equivalent of junk food…

  25. Elle Says:

    Wow, Prudence! I just read all the comments on that NY Observer story, and it paints an incredibly unattractive picture. I particularly liked the person asking if there were any opportunities going in the Middle East, because they spoke Arabic, and being asked why that had any relevance.

  26. ts46064 Says:

    http://www.egodialogues.com/words-language/huxley-orwell.php

  27. Prudence Says:

    @ Elle: I'm always surprised how often language proficiency is considered pointless, even suspicious, and not just in news orgs. Consider how many media "experts" actually speak the language of the people/country they specialize in, or have been there for longer than a couple of weeks at a time.