by Tim Patterson
Cut, no. 20, 1979, p. 30
Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Any night of the week, viewers in most cities can chuckle their way through their own version of local "Eyewitless News."
For the past several years, local news shows have placed an increasing emphasis on turning news into entertainment, turning reporters into celebrities and turning short film clips into a substitute for journalism. As the competition for local ratings has intensified, the rivalry among these public affairs situation comedies has grown accordingly. WLS-TV, the ABC affiliate in Chicago, is generally credited with pioneering the concept of "Happy News" a half-dozen years ago. Its success in the ratings led ABC to spread the format to the four other major city stations it directly owns and operates. By now, elements of the approach have been picked up and incorporated into local news shows on nearly every commercial station in the country. As if further evidence were needed, the illusion of autonomy on the part of local TV stations is effectively punctured by the remarkable congruence of news formats in different cities.
The local news used to be a disaster area in the ratings, as well as in its content, but at least the former has changed dramatically in the era of happy talk. FCC figures for fiscal 1976 (the latest available) indicate that net profits for local stations jumped an average of 70.7%, the biggest rise for any segment of the TV industry. And the highest ratings (and therefore highest advertising time rates) for locally-originating programming these days are consistently held by the evening local news. While it may be a little depressing to think of happy news as a model of successful media innovation, rather than as an example of pathetic neglect, that's what it is.
Apparently, the audience eats it up. Since the only way viewers can punish their local TV station is by turning it off, the rise in the ratings seems to indicate that the audience has wrested a concession out of the media. In a sense, that is probably true. With most of the people in the U.S. highly skeptical about both public officials and the media, happy news has a considerable advantage over the drier old-fashioned style of delivery. For straight news to be appealing enough to leave the set on, it has to be perceived as at least minimally true and informative. Eyewitless news only has to be amusing and an aid to digestion, which is certainly more up the media's alley. So the local news audience has gotten what it wanted in the same narrow sense in which moviegoers have won their demands for JAWS, STAR WARS and yet another Clint Eastwood epic.
The success of happy news lies in its reflection — even anticipation — of trends in the entertainment programming on TV and in mass commercial popular culture generally in the past few years, including the attempt to turn everyone in sight into a star of at least local magnitude. A major part of the eyewitless strategy is the recruitment and exposure of attractive, photogenic news "personalities," selected on the basis of their sex appeal rather than their journalistic credentials. A premium is placed on the ability to project a fresh, spontaneous image in a contrived atmosphere of informality, and on a newscaster's capacity to provoke a strong, personal audience response.
The extremes of the selection process for choice anchor slots in the larger cities verge on science fiction. Stations can contract with at least established testing firms, which will conduct experiments with mock newscasts on closed-circuit TV to an audience wired with electrodes that measure skin response and the behavior of their sweat glands. More to the point, this bio-journalistic wizardry is at the service of a thriving and very mobile market for newscasters, who circulate through the farm-league stations on their way to the majors with maximum fanfare. Variety, the leading show business trade paper, devotes a full page every week to reports of how much stations are paying to snap up heralded anchor-people. Spots on local stations that plug the newscasts emphasize either the current star performer, the infectious collective spirit of the whole newsgang, or both.
The key anchorperson is nearly always a white male in his thirties, with women and minorities confined to supporting roles, to specialized "consumer reports" or similar features, or to the late-night and weekend newscasts that draw considerably smaller audiences. The racist and sexist mold that TV news is cast in certainly predates happy news, and the proportion of women and minority faces on the screen has inched upwards in recent years, but the newer format can claim no credit for even these token advances.
And in the case of female newscasters, in particular, greater prominence on the evening news has been a decidedly mixed blessing. Women, at least in subsidiary roles, are essential foils for the zippy humor of the happy newsmen, since a dash of sexual innuendo, as every TV producer knows by now, is definitely good for digestion. Speculation about on- and off-air romances can add voyeurism to the proceedings, and occasional participation by an attractive female newswoman in a wet T-shirt contest can provide an added promotional bonus.
The rise of the photogenic non-journalist has been accompanied by a proliferation of several kinds of non-news filler. "People in the news" segments are common, yet another manifestation of the current super-promotion of celebrities throughout the U.S. media. Consumer advice departments do dispense some useful information, but they function primarily as ad campaigns for consumerism in general or as free advertising for specific products. The "action line" segments that many local stations have copied from newspapers do manage to retrieve several lost welfare checks a year and hasten installation of a few traffic signals, but they certainly aren't news. More than that, they encourage political passivity, by turning over the fight against your local bureaucracy to-the bureaucracy at your local TV station.
The growing clutter of non-news items has apparently outgrown the bounds of the news shows themselves. NBC has had good results with national distribution of its "Evening Magazine" concept, which is simply an additional half-hour of frisbee championships, celebrity profiles and tips on flower arranging, filling the slot after the half hour of national network news. (NBC, in fact, has also been the leader in happifying its national news, with John Chancellor and David Brinkley lounging on the edges of their desks in a revamped set.)
The innovations of eyewitless news are a triumph of form over content. The essential structural strategy of contemporary news programming is making the show as fast-paced as possible, with a higher number of shorter items using the maximum amount of film or videotape footage. Film is highly prized for its visual appeal, which builds in a bias against "dull" stories that require detailed and complex analysis but which do not photograph well. News shows move along at a rapid clip to command continued viewer attention, with a sizeable portion of each brief item often being the transitions to and from the surrounding items. The sequence of items is determined not by their substantive overall relation, but by the conventions of effective program construction — the proper mix and alternation of "light" and "hard" news, film clips and "talking heads," and "good news" and "bad news." The opportunity to draw connections and provide a synthesizing perspective is not just passed up by the stations themselves. It is made prohibitively difficult for the audience, which is presented with a daily bag of jigsaw puzzle pieces with no completed picture as a guide.
One of the most significant improvements in video technology in recent years has been the development of lightweight portable cameras that make on-the-spot coverage considerably easier. Unfortunately, the technology is frequently used by having the "Action-Cam" or "Instant Eye" turn a non-news story into "news," or by giving even greater prominence to police blotter and disaster reports. Demonstrations can provide graphic filmc1ips, but the visual pull is used to neglect or distort why any particular, anonymous crowd has taken to the streets.
Portable cameras and improved remote broadcasting equipment have also enlarged the possibilities for reporters to become participants in the events they cover. There have been numerous instances where TV reporters have served as negotiators in armed confrontations, suicide attempts and similar dramatic incidents while the station suspended normal programming to carry the story live. In such a situation, the "story" becomes the station and its reporter, a remarkable variation on the media's creation of the news.
The combination of pre-tested personalities, witty banter and rapid-fire action footage amounts to an avoidance of the traditional responsibilities of journalism, even of bourgeois journalism. With items running usually under 30 seconds, with the camera taking precedence over the reporter, with mindless filler given equal billing with hard news, there is no room for serious, in-depth examination of major economic, social and political developments that affect the lives of the viewers. There is almost no investigative reporting done by local news staffs, merely packaging of news from the papers, wire services and official press releases. It is not simply nostalgia that suggests that there has been a demonstrable decline in the performance of textbook journalistic functions.
The significance of this degeneration of bourgeois standards of professionalism is hard to assess. It is true that the higher ratings for local happy news shows mean that more people are getting at least the tidbits of "real" news that are sandwiched between the slices of fluff. It is also true that the major electronic and print press outlets have always presented an ideologically distorted version of the news and suppressed a correct analysis of capitalist society. Happy news is surely not by its nature any more conducive to reactionary than to "liberal" content, and the eyewitless trend does not seem also to be a rightward trend. The shift to happy news is a shift in the form of mystification, not a fundamental change in the basic function of the press as an institution of social control and class domination.
At the same time, the eyewitless trend does have important implications, especially when viewed as a microcosmic representation of market-oriented U.S. culture as a whole at the present time. A culture which can't stomach news about itself unless it is disguised as or replaced by entertainment has got to be in some kind of serious trouble.
But where do you get a film clip for that story?
We thank the Guardian for permission to reprint a revised version of Tim Patterson's article, which appeared in their pages last year. The Guardian offers the most extensive national and international news coverage on the left from an independent Marxist-Leninist position. Subs: $17/yr and 6-week trial for $1; 33 W. 17th St., New York, NY 10011.