Adalian Column: I Heard the News Today. Oh, Boy.

Apr 17, 2009  •  Post A Comment

A Pew study released late last year showed that, for Americans under 30, the Internet has all but overtaken TV as their primary source of news.
TV types no doubt greeted the report with alarm. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few networks secretly commissioned studies to find out why the kids are abandoning TV news.
I’ll save them some money: Viewers are turning to the Internet for news because it’s become almost impossible to find actual news on TV.
The three cable channels often described as “all-news”? Try maybe 10% news, 90% news “product.”
Primetime, of course, has long been a hard-news-free zone on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. With the exception of “Anderson Cooper 360,” you simply cannot find a thorough summary of the day’s events between 8 and 11 p.m. on cable.
Hot air, blather, debate, opinion, analysis? Cable’s got it all.
Actual reportage of facts, the stuff Cronkite and Murrow used to serve up? Good night, and good luck trying to find any of that after dark.
I probably could live with the three cable news channels going for entertainment in primetime if it weren’t for the fact that hard news has evaporated elsewhere around the dial as well.
CNN used to have a sister channel devoted to nothing but bite-sized news nuggets. But that apparently wasn’t a profitable enough venture for the bean counters at Time Warner, so Headline News morphed into the monstrosity known as HLN, and news was replaced with … yup, hot air, blather, debate, opinion and analysis.
The same conglomerate also once owned a network where viewers could watch live news coverage of important trials. Way too … factual. Court TV became the unfortunately named truTV, which now is home to the same overheated “reality” shows that fill a dozen other channels.
Daytime on cable still contains a bit of news reporting, but it also has been infected by the babble virus that long ago claimed primetime as a victim.
Wolf Blitzer generally plays it straight (if a tad shrill), but his CNN daytime block “The Situation Room” frequently is punctuated by screaming partisan debates and the cranky (if on-target) ramblings of Jack Cafferty.
And Rick “Check me out on Twitter” Sanchez? It’s better that we just not go there.
Over at MSNBC, the day now begins with “Morning Joe,” another infotainment-filled block powered by the right-wing rants of a former GOP congressman rather than a certified journalist. And while Andrea Mitchell’s hourlong newscast provides sanctuary for those of us who want just the facts (thank you, ma’am), other daytime anchors on MSNBC have taken to injecting their opinions into stories or screaming at guests.
What so many of the folks at CNN and MSNBC have in common is Fox Envy. Roger Ailes’ Fox News Channel, after all, is the entity most responsible for TV news’ abandonment of actual news.
Criticizing Fox News has become as cliched as media reporters making cracks about NBC Universal bigwig Ben Silverman’s party-boy reputation. And yet, there’s no getting around the fact that the astounding ratings success of Mr. Ailes’ network has prompted rivals to duplicate the Fox News habit of injecting “attitude”—or opinion—into its coverage.
The broadcast world has done a better job avoiding advocacy journalism. But that doesn’t mean all is well over in the land of the single revenue stream.
Network morning shows used to draw flack if lighter stories showed up before the 8:30 a.m. half-hour. Now most start packing in the fluff and features and concert series as soon as the first commercial break is over.
Sunday mornings remain relatively wonky on the Washington chat shows. But even they’ve lightened up in a none-too-subtle bid for ratings. “This Week” heavily hypes its weekly roundup of late-night comedy clips. And the amount of time given over to newsmaker interviews has been shrinking in order to expand round-table segments where journalists and political consultants trade barbs.
Evenings are a little better for the networks, with Brian, Charlie and Katie still maintaining some semblance of old-school journalism. But the huge cutbacks made to network news budgets over the past two decades have resulted in a noticeable reduction in coverage of international news.
Likewise, while I’m happy that “Nightline” has survived the departure of Ted Koppel, the show’s switch to a multitopic format has significantly weakened what was once a jewel of the small screen. A show that used to bring together global leaders now devotes time to profiles of Rick Springfield.
The executives who run the cable and broadcast news outlets have heard all of these complaints before. I am far from the first print-based media columnist to whine about the tabloidization of TV news.
What’s more, it’s worth noting that the print world is hardly immune from the move away from hard news. Ink-stained wretches once content with getting their bylines in print now spend big chunks of time figuring out how to build themselves into brands, the better to compete with the oversized personalities who populate the blogosphere.
And as noted above, there’s still plenty to appreciate about TV journalism, from Ms. Mitchell’s gentle grilling of world leaders to Katie Couric’s fair and balanced treatment of Sarah Palin and other key figures of the 2008 campaign.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to appreciate the very real talents of those in the TV news business when so many of their bosses seem hell-bent on serving up as little real news as possible.


  1. The trend away from news on cable news channels is another example of what I call “unbranding;” something that has infected the cable dial from top to bottom. For a time branding was the order of the day; putting the focus on core competencies and audiences with laser-like precision. But in recent years the trend has reversed. The History Channel has less history, Discovery has less discovery, Arts & Entertainment has dropped the arts, you get the idea. In almost all cases, the replacement programming has been of the “reality” type, and has served to make these channels all but indistinguishable from each other. I guess it’s no surprise that the news channels would follow suit.

  2. I’ve got to agree with Andy. The cable networks that started out with clearly defined audiences have “debranded” themselves as a necessary strategy to widen their audiences and draw viewers away from broadcasters. More to the point of the article, it seems the only way for the “news” networks to break through the clutter is to be shrill rather than thoughtful, building on a loyal, narrow and vocal audience that makes it impossible for a cable operator to drop them. Maybe it’s a matter of what core viewers allow the brand to stand for, but when “Fair and Balanced” and “No Bull, No Bais” are at opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s little wonder that Gen X and Gen Y viewers give up all together feeling that both sides are “All Bull, All Bias”. With the under 30’s going elsewhere for hard news (mostly to Jon Stewart), it makes one wonder if the cable news guys are on the road to shouting themselves into irrelevance.

  3. I have to agree with Andy’s assessment; cable network channels were niche’ channels where viewers could be assured that going to the Travel Channel would mean you’d see travel programs but instead we are served up gobs of “World Poker Tour” in Vegas, “Haunted Houses” complete with over-hyped paranormal investigations and programs where the emphasis is how many dung beetles a host can eat or how many different over-sized entree’s can a person cram down their gullet.
    The networks are all trying to follow each other as one spikes a trend, the others try to copy it with minor adaptations to their “niche'” and it all starts to sound and look the same. News channels discovered what I would call the “Jon Benet Syndrome” and flood the spectrum with recent child disappearances and alleged murders to the point of being ridiculous. Where is the variety and the diversity that cable once offered?
    This is causing me to seriously regret the expense of my plasma and consider cancelling my subscription.

  4. Of course, advertisers are the reason why cable’s the way it is.
    With most cable channels charging the equivalent of what small radio stations called “a dollar a holler,” the fact that advertisers have shown that they will pay a premium for young males–who spend more time on the Internet than they do in front of a TV screen–has sent many cable channels into unloading onto the schedules the hot babe and extreme stuntfest reality shows, all for stepping outside the alleged niche in the quest of an audience that DOESN’T WATCH TELEVISION!

  5. Internet for Americans under 30? I’m way over that age, and I don’t get my news on TV (same for entertainment).
    15 years ago I knew that I could go to CNN for the main news of the day. But now it’s turned into an advertising channel with a little bit of infotainment and long teasers in-between. In the last few years, the good anchors have been replaced with stand-up comedians (minus the wit). In the media business, content is assumed to be the key. It’s exactly what’s missing.
    It’s hard to compare CNN with Fox News, because Fox was never meant to be a news channel. From the beginning it targeted a niche audience who wasn’t really looking for info but only needed group therapy that never interfered with its already established beliefs.
    This is where CNN and some other news programs were and could have remained different. Unfortunately, they went with the advertising model: if you have no creativity, copy others.

  6. Even the Weather Channel after NBC got its hands on it has begun to demphasize hard weather coverage and now feels just as fluffy as local weather coverage with stupid segments which just feature loops of the same footage with the same sunny days and the same sunny people; I don’t care about sunny weather. They got rid of the best talent they had to prop up their big ‘stars’ and now you can’t really tune in just to find out the weather because they might be into “Storm Stories” or their other ‘original’ programming that does not belong on a channel devoted to one topic, including their advocacy programs which certainly don’t belong on that network. More of my weather information has gone to a local looping weather subchannel which is just straight-on maps and forecasts, the way it should be.
    As for news, I would gladly switch to a channel such as Al-Jazzera America on TV, which does offer a news rundown every half hour, but it can’t get clearance on any major cable system at all (as Aaron Barnhart of TVBarn has exhastively catalouged over the last three years) and depends mostly on airing IPTV in America.
    I’m tired of the big three not covering the actual news just straight on and without opinion. The loss of “First Look” on MSNBC, the only true show with a news rundown left on cable news (we’re not going to count “Student News” on HLN in this because of its specific audience), was devastating to me because it was, even in all of it’s morning news fluffiness, the last place on cable to get news straight outside of the pre-morning show newscasts and evening newscasts on broadcast television.

  7. I’d rather see Rick Springfield on the TV than most of the other stuff on there. At least Rick can sing, all the others can do is yell and be loud mouthed nuisances.

  8. Interesting. Mr. Adalian spends a column critisizing news coverage on TV using the names of the 3 Network’s on-air personnel and the Cable guys, Wolf and Anderson, but never once mentions the guy that’s been on top for 100 months and has ratings that consistantly beat them all combined.
    ALAS, Where can we get the news if all the TV guys are nothing but entertainers?
    Newspapers? Too much Left wing Bias
    Radio? Too much Right wing Bias
    Internet? Too much Say what you want-
    nobody checks, so let’s manipulate the folks!

  9. Really good overview of the reality of news television today. Just one point of contention for me. I wouldn’t refer to Morning Joe as a right wing rant. It leans right, but overall is much closer to the middle than any of right wing product coming out of Fox and left wing stuff coming out of MSNBC prime.
    My own disappointment in political news is the parrots they book as guests. Host interviews a Rep or Dem and all I get are the same PR spin their writers handed them before the cameras started rolling. Now, I skip the first 30 min of Meet the Press, and wait for the second half when the objective (theoretically) pundits weigh in on the issues and positions. Same pattern with every other show out there. Keep booking the robotic mouthpieces from Capitol Hill and I’ll just switch over to an entertainment channel. At least they tell me upfront that I’m watching entertainment and fiction.

  10. Good points about bad TV news, or the lack of it.
    Solution: TURN IT OFF

  11. Adalian is a smart guy & solid writer.
    Unfortunately, this piece is not one of his better efforts.
    He offers no support at all for his stated thesis:
    Viewers are turning to the Internet for news because it’s become almost impossible to find actual news on TV.
    Even assuming that it is difficult to find “actual news” (whatever that is) on TV, where’s the evidence that is in fact the reason young people are going to the Web for news?
    I’m a TV news vet. I’d love for there to be more hard news. Particularly “investigative” work. But the fact is that TV news demos traditionally skew toward older viewers.
    Young people never really have watched much. Perhaps the trend is accelerating. But what’s to say that all the fluff and bickering that’s replaced hard news isn’t keeping the trend from being even more severe?

  12. This writer does not understand his subject matter. In the same way that a film reviewer does not know a thing about making movies (if they did, I would expect them to be making the movies rather than critiquing them). This is not to say there is no value in reviewing, but it’s important to realize the review is a piece of entertainment, rather than something substantive worth listening to.
    As for his argument, that there is no news on cable tv and that millennials are turning to the web… Let’s just say he fails to understand the market fundamentals. News is a commodity, and like any commodity over-supply drives down its value. So places like Headline News (now “HLN”) and CNN which once prided themselves on carrying on the pure journalistic faith find themselves struggling in a market where the premium product is the provision of opinion about what the news means. What you find from examining Live + DVR data is that viewers flip between the O’Reilly Factor and Countdown, or they DVR one or the other.
    We are living in an exciting time where Americans are intensely interested in information and politics. They are absorbing raw information from the internet or other sources like newspapers, and then turning to the opinion purveyors from multiple perspectives to help shape their views on the trends in this country. The high value is not raw information which can be copied and replicated across a variety of formats. The value product is an authority figure who provides insight into what the raw information means.
    I would not expect an unknown 30-something writer from an irrelevant publication (probably soon to die) to understand any of this. This writer, like most online bloggers, is simply trying to get noticed and get people to comment. He has succeeded in this regard, but failed miserably in shaping a cogent argument and supporting it.
    And yes, i will address the under-30 crowd going to the web and not cable for news. Does anyone think they are really utilizing the internet for news information? It’s not even worth examining.

  13. One more thot- the author neglects that cable news has become news itself. Why else would blogs and newspapers cover it so much, beyond base envy for its current popularity? By becoming news, cable news advances stories, influences the public and private agenda, and does it as effectively or more so than the vaunted cronkite, who had a political agenda of his own.

  14. CW:
    If your idea of shaping a cogent argument is what you hear on the cable news networks, you are a sad example of the damage these channels have done.
    There is nothing beneficial about the opinions/analysis they provide; their programs do not give the audience food for thought (coherent debate) — they simply draw cartoonish, ignorant conclusions and sling them at each other.
    Mr. Adalian is one of those (woefully, hopelessly sad) romantics that believes programming entitled “News” should be backed up with a shred of journalistic integrity, which (since this obviously isn’t clear to you) bears no relationship to popularity or money.
    (By the way: If TVWeek is so irrelevant, what are you doing here? Commiserating?)

  15. Thank you, Matt, for the slice of reality. CW clearly likes his own opinions more than simple facts. The danger is that people actually consider many news “personalities” as authoritative. Big mistake.
    Public radio(NPR) has been the only decent source of news for a few years now. Yes, it is true. No, I will not debate the point.

  16. Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.

  17. This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

  18. Exceptional! Ahmadinejad did us a big favor! Basically we frantically delude our-self into considering this guy (and others who applaud him) are fit to be thought of as decent individuals, he spits in our face to point out to us that we are (yet again) fooling ourselves.

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  20. Well people, Lohan has returned to her old ways….Lohan admitted to screwing up a court-ordered narcotic test a week ago. She tweeted the subsequent: “This was certainly a setback in my position however , I am taking responsibility for my behaviour and I’m ready to face the consequences.” And so, maybe simply putting her in jail for a couple weeks and rehabilitation for less wasn’t the best idea!

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