In-Depth News Format Discovers an Audience

Sep 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

I’ve just about had it: The attack ads. The instant overnight data on who’s up and who’s down. The strategy shifts. The management shuffle. The breathless pundit analysis on what it all means. After slogging through two conventions, I’ve completely O.D.’d. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Kerry and Bush? No-I’m talking Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. The battle of the cable news networks has become a media sideshow, spawning an almost obsessive cottage industry of blogs, analysts and experts. With a lot of ad dollars and the reputations of the media parent companies at stake, the news networks have to take this stuff seriously. But in response to the increased competition, they’re all converging toward a similar prime-time strategy, differentiated mostly by the style-and in the case of Fox, the opinions-of their prime-time on-air talent. Is this really the only way to present the news?

It’s been almost 25 years since Ted Turner invented cable news. And despite the fact that there are now at least five 24-hour cable new services, changes to the original format have been more evolutionary than revolutionary since CNN went on the air. In the meantime, alternate sources of information have exploded-over the Internet, on late-night television, over cellphones. And a heightened news environment has kept pace with the technological advances.

From politics to hurricanes, terror threats to unemployment reports, we are bombarded daily with information. While the news networks do an excellent job of covering breaking news and providing insightful analysis, an enormous opportunity has opened up for a news format that can satisfy the hunger of viewers who want more depth, more context and more understanding.

When we set out to develop and launch a new network with Discovery and The New York Times and were casting about for the right format, I was dumbstruck by the obvious: In an increasingly verticalized TV environment, there wasn’t a network dedicated to providing in-depth long-form programming that puts the news in context. In launching Discovery Times Channel, our goal was to complement the traditional cable news format by providing viewers a place to go for artful and substantive documentaries on domestic and international issues, on subjects ranging from voting machines and the crisis in Darfur to the future of car design and the subculture of hip-hop music.

To be sure, there are several excellent sources of in-depth news on television. CBS’s “60 Minutes” and “The NewsHour” on PBS provide brilliant long-form pieces. And documentaries on PBS’s “Frontline” and “Wide Angle,” “CNN Presents” and “Discovery Channel Spotlight” provide a number of excellent hours of in-depth journalistic films each year. Even broadcast networks occasionally surprise, like when NBC ran the excellent death penalty documentary “Deadline” in prime time. It’s a start, but I think my fellow information junkies (as well as a lot of other folks) want more.

The evidence for an eager news documentary audience is compelling. According to a recent Pew report, four in 10 Americans say they are looking for in-depth analysis of major news stories in addition to headlines and basic facts. Tellingly, nearly half view all the news media outlets as “pretty much the same,” according to the same survey. The recent booming box office tallies for nonfiction theatricals about everything from war to the fast-food industry have certainly made me stand up and take notice.

Don’t get me wrong, the cable news networks are doing a fine job. They serve an important role in keeping the viewing public up-to-date on the news, and I remain a loyal viewer. But there are 100 million-plus viewers out there like me who may just be ready for an alternative.

Vivian Schiller is general manager and senior VP of Discovery Times Channel. She previously was head of long-form programming at CNN.