It’s likely no one but me is comparing Kim and Klein’s piece to those from other telecasts. But cross-checking who’s done what raises a more intriguing question: Did anyone watching the other stations get Jacob’s message? Which is, it’s time to set up a committee to formulate emergency-room guidelines. Would viewers have remembered that? In contrast, did viewers recognize the importance of not using an emergency room for minor ills because Kim and Klein personalized the story around Amy’s fingernail? (In this sense, Jacob, despite her announcement, received what she should have asked the media for.) The other channels may have worked on other reports, choosing (rightly, wrongly) not to develop this newser. News, as we shall see, abounds with choices. But kgtv’s exception on this one day among thousands of on-air news days proves a rule: Television may be the quickest means of presenting facts, images, and (is it possible?) ideas to the public, but all that speed is meaningless if (a) no one is watching and (b) the presentation of the story is so unremarkable that even if anyone watches, he or she won’t “get it.”
Would that more crews had Kim and Klein’s gumption in the face of a newser. Perhaps more people would watch. But, the fact is, an awful lot of people don’t watch. And, for the last decade, more and more regular TV viewers have quit watching the news. In San Diego and across America. Local newspeople usually don’t cry wolf, but the loss of viewers is now a crisis in the business. The magnitude of the loss is such that old stations are undergoing makeovers while new stations are ramping up the Hi-Tech and “growing a market” for new viewers. TV executives and their consultants have generated reams of inquiry to determine why viewers are leaving, let alone what stations can do about it. First, the numbers. According to Nielsen Media Research and the Pew Research Center’s year 2000 biennial survey, national and local broadcast news in the last eight years have been steadily losing their audiences. In 1993, 60 percent of regular TV viewers watched the national news; today it’s down by half to 30 percent. In 1993, nearly 80 percent of TV viewers watched local news; today it’s 56 percent.
Why are people tuning out? News on the Internet has been a major drain, growing from nothing to more than 20 percent of the entire news audience in less than a decade. The rise of cable news stations has meant more competition for national and local audiences. The perception that “crime and mayhem” are the steady diet of newscasts everywhere turns people off: Even though most studies show that crime stories have eased to about 22 percent of total coverage, producers lead with what bleeds or employ the “are we safe?” motif so often that a story’s urgency supersedes its importance. During the 1990s, news stations faced tough competition from tabloid TV. Instead of shining on the paparazzi, local stations boarded the Update Express, rode with O.J., JonBenet, Andrew Cunanan, and Princess Di to even lower ratings. As advertisers bailed and stations quit hiring, many reporters had to do two instead of one day-of-air stories, which limits the gathering or “sourcing” of other points of view for their pieces. “Enterprising” the news — investigative, proactive, idea-based journalism — began drying up further from its already desiccated state. Stations grew to rely on the prearranged event: a trial, a newser, a feed from Wall Street; in essence, news controlled by the covered, not by those doing the coverage. Viewers often detest (as Kim and Klein know) this chummy alliance between officialdom and the media and, as a result, turn off political reporting, even when they (the viewers) need to know about an issue. Taking its cues from Baywatch, local news has become just another weapon of mass distraction. But unlike Baywatch, the news itself is losing out even as it jiggles. Schizy viewers keep leaving because, they say, there are too many car chases or there is too much to ogle. Yes, they disapprove of themselves for tuning in. But pangs of self-disgust are brief. Audiences, instead of analyzing why they are so easily led, scorn stations for pandering to them. In San Diego, viewers have fired the news and found other things to do with their time, no tough task in this climate.
Local stations are responding to a dwindling audience by making news something more — more personal, more flashy, more confrontational, more infotaining — certainly not something less; that is, quieter, reflective, thoughtful. With a new century, there’s no going back, pre-tabloid, pre-Internet, pre–Dr. Laura, to an anchor looking down and reading a script. These days, if news is not made to hold viewers, then stations don’t have a news problem, they have a “not-watched” problem. No matter how deeply researched, how expertly filmed, mere reporting (a.k.a. talking to the camera) conveys little. It’s endured briefly — the brain lapses in nanoseconds — and the viewer clicks elsewhere or off.
Making News Local
Imagine you’re the hotshot reporter who’s gotten onto the set of the cbs Evening News with Dan Rather for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes profile. You’re a nervous Nelly, wandering the base camp of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, and Mike Wallace. Supernova Dan Rather, in the house at $7 million a year, draws your radar like Oprah. He’s delivered the goods since before Kennedy was killed. Rather’s piquant saws rouse your interest, like his criticism of the news networks who’ve “gone from watchdogs to lap dogs.” After stolen moments with Dan, you are jostled about by the pinstriped bosses of image and legality — corporate vice-presidents, entertainment lawyers, in-house media consultants, mostly dodging your questions about ratings and proprietary focus-group info, secrets welded shut. Roaming the hallways you spot members of the palace guard, their voices flashing in your ear — the reveille delivery of Diana Gonzalez, the sandpapery gruff of Bob Schieffer. Are they reporters? Are they celebrities? Protégés of the mighty producer Lowell Bergman (remember The Insider?) are slotting into the “beat sheet” a congressional debate over partial-birth abortions, a billion-dollar cable merger, some stale White House muck, a story on the one-dozen deaths each year caused by faulty automatic garage-door openers that have turned garages into “fearsome death traps,” a little Middle East rioting — all capped off with a piece of resurrected nostalgia by Charles Kuralt, touring the South. Though the ability to “go live” at any moment hangs in the air, the coverage is grave and inflexible and, apparently, not just reported but believed. There’s no anchor-reporter chitchat; those at the top are better than that. The community the newscast reflects is — your gawkathon clarifies — the nation, the world, sun, moon, and stars. What’s local has zero presence on the Big News. Indeed the local is merely an affiliate, from the Latin “to adopt.” Though it’s anchored in New York, the reach and grasp of the Big News is totalitarian. Nothing you write will bring it out of that plenitude and close to home. “And that’s the way it is,” soothed the most trusted man in America.