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Guest Commentary: News Format Is 50, but Gets the Job Done

Dec 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

There it is again. Another person said it. Probably on C-SPAN-a panel, with a title like “Striking a Happy Media.” Some academics. A retired editor. A reporter who wrote a book. And one of them says:
“Young people today will no longer put up with the 50-year-old format of network news.”
Sometimes the word order is different, but it is always the “50-year-old format.” So these young people get their news, we are boldly told, from Leno and Letterman, from Jon Stewart and Bill Maher and Conan O’Brien. Really?
Then where do Bill Maher and Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart get their news? Yes, they are often very funny. They zero in on the ridiculous in the daily life of nations and hold it up to more ridicule. Good for them! First Amendment and all that. But how do they know?
Jon Stewart was not on the carrier Lincoln to ask who put up the banner. Jay Leno was not in the courtroom when Fox sued Al Franken. Did Dave Letterman read the petition to recall California Gov. Gray Davis? Or Bill Maher count the pills Rush Limbaugh took too many of?
No. They knew all about these events because reporters reported them. When panels slice up the news, it’s always the news as they get it, see it, read it, hear it. Never about who got the news in the first place, or how.
There are no complaints about 50-year-old formats getting the news. Only how it is presented. They never talk about how the news is gotten. They seem to think it is just there, like air and water. But someone has to get it in the first place, and the rules for getting the news have stood for a lot longer than 50 years.
When an editor knows something is going to happen-a football game, a press conference, an execution-he sends a reporter, who looks for a little more than what casual passersby see. When an event is unexpected-an earthquake, a lottery winner, a kidnapping-he sends the reporter to piece together what happened. When it seems likely many things will occur in one place-Tel Aviv, Congress, the Kennedy Space Center-he installs as many reporters as he can afford.
For a TV reporter, there is also a camera.
Then the news comes back, where it is evaluated for importance and interest, and enough items are assembled to constitute a newspaper or a newscast. Jon Stewart watches, or reads, and says, “Hey, that’s funny. We’ll use it tonight.”
On network TV, the “format” is 50 years old; for newspapers, it’s more than 200 years old. (The tabloid “format” is a little younger.) But even when news ends in a joke, it starts with a reporter.
Every “format” is always changing. Newspapers were once illustrated with pencil sketches, then black-and-white photographs, then color. Network news started at 15 minutes. When things were slow they showed girls water skiing. Now they are a half-hour long and feature many medical stories because the audience tends to be old. (Young people don’t care about medical stories; they expect to live forever.)
Fewer watch than used to, partly because of all that news on cable. After a lot of fancy talk about 24-hour news, cable learned that news must be broken into units. A unit of TV is called a program, except at CBS News, where it is called a “broadcast.” Cable presents news in hour-long units, which are the same as network half-hours plus a live interview or panel, which are cheaper than sending crews to make pictures.
Also, fewer people watch TV news than when it began, which was right after World War II, when millions of American homes had a loved one in a foreign place and the foreign names were familiar. Add the Cold War and people wanted news. Perhaps that ended with Vietnam, when Americans hated what they saw and hated TV for showing it to them. Which has nothing to do with format.
Perhaps as well, fewer people read and watch news, because schools don’t teach history and geography the way they used to. Any day now, there will be another survey showing how little history Americans know, and another about their ignorance of the earth. If you don’t understand what went before and don’t know where it happened, how can you follow the day’s news?
So what is all this about 50-year-old formats? Promoting his new book, Bill O’Reilly shows up on Tim Russert’s show-not “Meet the Press”, but Russert’s cable show. O’Reilly tells Russert that he is the acknowledged monarch of cable talk because young people today are no longer satisfied with the 50-year-old format of network news. His news is not deadpan. He tells you what he thinks about it. That’s what young people want today.
A few months ago, a story in TelevisionWeek said that nearly half the people watching Bill O’Reilly are 65 years old or older. Perhaps he could use some medical stories.
Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.