Outside Voices: Aaron Barnhart On Why TV Entertainment Thrives, While TV News Struggles

(Aaron Barnhart/CBS)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Kansas City Star television critic and TV Barn blogger Aaron Barnhart to offer up some of his ideas. Here, he wonders why the same forces that have made television the best outlet for entertainment haven't been able to mimic that success with television news. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Aaron:

I am typing these words from inside a refrigerated ballroom in Pasadena, Calif., where I am pretty sure it would be legal to sell eggs. I'm at the semi-annual gathering of the Television Critics Association, where the networks present their new shows to 150 ink-stained but increasingly wired scribes, many of whom are relaying the proceedings in real time to their readers through their blogs, if only because it keeps their fingers warm.

I started at the Kansas City Star 10 years ago, three years after I began writing about television "on the Net," as we called it back then. Before "the Web," before "the blogosphere," before "pajamas media," you published by e-mail, on texty bulletin boards and to something called Usenet that people today mostly stumble over on a Google search.

Something else has changed dramatically on my beat in the last decade. In the 1990s television was widely considered a secondary beat, with not nearly the stature of film. Through a convergence of events no one anticipated -- not just technological, like the invention of DVRs and DVDs, but imaginative, like the creation of "24" and the hiring of Jerry Bruckheimer -- that has changed. Television is now America's storyteller of choice.

Here inside the Ritz-Carlton ballroom, we may be suffering from chills, bloggerhea and other work-related ailments, but we're not kidding ourselves: We know our jobs are great.

And that's because it's a pleasure to write about TV shows that, on the whole, are now better made and better written than movies are. Every day, thousands of people walk out of the store with a home theater and soon discover the joys of staying at home as opposed to the cineplex, where their choices have dwindled thanks to the divide-and-conquer demographic madness that has gripped Hollywood. (If only the Caribbean pirates would wear Prada, as my friend Gary Dretzka recently joked.)

Prime time television is more entertaining, more satisfying and -- as Stephen Johnson convincingly argued in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You -- more challenging than it has ever been. We're living in a golden age for TV entertainment.

So why is it that the situation for TV news is trending in exactly the opposite direction? Why is it more insipid, sensational and facile than ever? Why are Americans who rely on television as their main source of information less informed than ever?

This topic came up more than once this week, as two lions of network journalism paid their respects to the TV critics. Dan Rather and Ted Koppel have each, in the past year, gone from working for publicly traded media conglomerates to privately held cable companies, Rather moving to Mark Cuban's HDNet after his unceremonious exit from CBS and Koppel to Discovery after his retirement from ABC. On cable, these men can only hope to retain a fraction of the audience that watched them on the networks, but each sounded as though they were salvaging a much larger chunk of their self-worth as journalists.

"So much of journalism, particularly television journalism, has become focused on sound bites and spin," said Rather. "There's a place for the sound bite news, celebrity news, the Hollywoodization of news, but that place is not going to be 'Dan Rather Reports' and not on HDNet."

Koppel, likewise, has been vocal about what's happened to network journalism. He told us, "I think the marketplace is exerting a far more dangerous influence on what gets on and what doesn't get on television news programming these days than any sense of fear of political repercussions or consequences."

Surely, though, both Koppel and Rather realize that they face just as daunting a task on cable television, where the budgets and audiences are a fraction of what they once enjoyed on network TV. And look what's on cable: "Headline News" and three "24-hour news channels," led by Fox, that are mostly just talk radio with pictures.

The most welcome trend in cable journalism is the one to which Rather and Koppel will now be contributing: the explosion in documentaries.
Films like Why We Fight, shows like "30 Days" and the ongoing experiment that is Al Gore's Current TV all celebrate individual reporting forged from personal, often idiosyncratic visions. Overall, though, these are no substitutes for organizational news.

As a critic, the failure of TV news appears to have the same two handmaidens as the success of TV entertainment. Technology has not improved the scope or span of the average American news consumer's diet. This chapter is not fully written, of course, because video on the Web is still in its relative infancy, and once it matures we may, in fact, see the convergence that Wall Street bet on disastrously in the late 1990s.

Mostly, though, the arrival of cheap digital equipment has not been reflected in wider, or deeper, news content, because the industry still insists on measuring itself by the ratings system that was created for the entertainment side of media. In his essential book News Is People, Craig Allen, a professor at Arizona State's journalism school, persuasively showed that when the government put pressure on local stations in the early 1960s to prove their "community service," it effectively wedded newsrooms to Nielsens. And that put local TV on the road to what we have today: highly profitable, if often un-illuminating, electronic journalism which the big networks, and later cable news, imitated.

And the failure has been imaginative as well. In network entertainment today we have the one-hour procedural, the action serial, and the reality show. None of these forms existed in any meaningful way 10 years ago. Now they dominate the prime time schedule. And yet, news still continues to be expressed through the same shopworn genres -- the magazine, the nightly news, the chatty cable channel -- that have been around for a generation or longer. No wonder people under 40 prefer "The Daily Show."

So that, in a very broad and breezy way, is the problem. I know it sounds abstract, so I'll give one example of why the situation is really kind of dire. Koppel made the point on Wednesday that no American network, as far as he knows, has a correspondent permanently stationed in India, even though it is one of the world's emerging powers and a potential exporter of blowback. "For this, at all times, to be the time when network news divisions feel that they can't afford to have active news bureaus in some of the most important overseas locations I think is not only a travesty, I think it's something we're going to be paying for for years to come," Koppel said.

I'm a critic, so I'm looking mostly from the outside in. Still, it just seems to me that with the right mix of people, technology and imagination, we can reverse the backslide of TV journalism and make it as vital to our democracy as DVDs of TV shows are to the entertainment economy.

Here are three broad areas where the problem could be addressed head-on:

1. Public television is broken. We can fix it. I have come to believe, along with others, that private citizens can and must respond to the crisis in television news through aggressive funding of noncommercial outlets. And it's not as if a worthy recipient isn't in plain sight.

"The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" is everything commercial network news
isn't: civil, rational, meaty, global. Why isn't an entire 24-hour schedule built on it? Public radio has reinvented itself since the 1980s thanks to its emphasis on substantive broadcasting of news. But radio is cheap compared with TV. And Congress, going back to the days of Democratic rule, has never shown the interest in funding a large-scale news operation to rival those of Canada, Great Britain, or other state-run networks.

So billionaires will have to step up to the plate. I like Mark Cuban, but he is a businessman and an individualist. What public television needs is a group of civic-minded donors like Joan Kroc, who bequeathed $200 million to NPR, to build a very large endowment for PBS so it can begin to invest in news.

2. Newspapers are poised to redefine local news -- with or without cross-ownership. Congress and the FCC want to relax media ownership rules so one company can own the daily paper and a TV station in the same market. But I'm talking about something else: namely, the rapid growth of online video at most daily papers' Web sites. Although still mostly in the experimental stage, online news video is less sensational and more informative than typical local TV news segments.

As such, it is a possible answer to a question Allen asks in his book:
Why has there never been an alternative to the dominant local TV news format? I thought it was going to be the automated 24-hour news approach pioneered by News 12 Long Island and various Time Warner Cable outlets across the country. But the momentum of local cable news has fizzled.

With their large newsrooms and commitment to supplying depth to their readers, newspapers are a natural to enter the video market. First, though, they have to get their content off computers and onto TV sets.
And that's where the technology of video on demand (VOD) has so much potential. The ability of a computer to assemble a 10-minute, 30-minute or hour-long newscast out of segments produced at the newspaper, then called up anytime on the consumer's cable system, is one of those paradigm-busting ideas that almost makes too much sense.

For it to be fully realized, unfortunately, requires a piece of equipment that costs each cable operator about $100,000 -- not to mention getting VOD-equipped cable boxes into the 50 percent of customers' homes that don't have them.

3. Entertainment may get lost in translation, but news doesn't. One way to address Koppel's challenge of that missing Indian reporter is to simply import English-language news from India. Sounds nutty, until you consider that public TV already makes considerable use of foreign-produced news, especially from Britain's ITV network. If you have satellite TV, you may know about a Peabody-winning program called "Mosaic," a daily half hour on the LinkTV satellite channel that is compiled from various newscasts throughout the Middle East. Foreign news not only gives us information our domestic newscasts don't, but something just as important: the point of view of foreign journalists, which can be starkly different from our own.

LinkTV, a modest operation run out of San Francisco, would not have been possible without a congressional set-aside of satellite spectrum for educational and informational purposes. A similar set-aside -- say, 6 megahertz, the bandwidth of one analog channel -- imposed on cable and satellite, could bring a dozen compressed English-language news services from around the world. Maybe this would finally be the incentive Rupert Murdoch needs to begin carrying his acclaimed Sky News service in the U.S., a move that (rumor has it) was stoutly opposed by the Fox people when it was proposed a few years back.

I've thrown a lot of ideas out here, so perhaps the core thought should be restated: The television industry has done an extraordinary job in making TV the culture's dominant creative entertainment medium.

That only makes its failure in TV news that much more glaring and tragic. But as a born optimist, I have reasons to believe that situation will change course just as dramatically in my next 10 years on the job.
  • Hillary Profita

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