Blame it on the clicker. You know, the remote control that lets us fly through the channels like a greased tele-surfer without having to pause for commercials. Or content. It's the clicker that's made those of us in the TV news business compete, not only with other newsgatherers, but with everything from 30-second soufflés to "Law and Order" reruns to classic cartoons.
Time was, if you wanted to change the channel (back in the misty days when the maximum was 13), you had to get up from your easy chair, walk across the room, and turn (not punch) the dial, a physical activity that required at least a modicum of energy. A recent cartoon in The New Yorker got it best. It showed an older fellow on a couch next to a young boy, as both watched TV. The man is saying to the kid, with the scorn apparent in his face, "When I was a boy, I had to walk five miles through the snow to change the channel." Bingo.
Now, our audiences sit back and work their thumbs, searching for the … what? … most captivating images … most engaging comments … the car crash, the sexy scene, the laughter. As I've been touring the country with my new book, Outside the Box: A Memoir, I've begged our viewers to give us more time – to finish a sentence, to ask a whole question, to get a whole answer. They could learn something.
But I don't hold out much hope.
My first job in television news was at WCBS-TV in New York. It was 1972, and as the flagship station of the mighty CBS network, Channel 2 was the proud provider of everything you needed to know about the city. We covered the mayor, the snowstorms, the water main breaks, the plane crashes, you name it. The striking thing about all those stories, as I look back on them today, is that they were long by television standards – three minutes plus – and that the people I interviewed for them were given enough air time to complete their thoughts, two or three sentences, rather than the six-second snippets required today. You could learn something by watching.
Today, on WCBS-TV, as on all the local newscasts, stories are – at best – half as long, and few interviewees get more than a quick sound bite. We used to have a film critic who reviewed movies at least once a week. Today, they more regularly report the box-office gross.
All this, of course, as profits have replaced public service as the primary force behind TV news divisions.
The rules have changed. We live in a world with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, when everything has to be delivered faster, shorter, punchier. We function in a universe where news is now available on everything from 24/7 cable to the Internet to our iPods. Someday, I am firmly convinced, news bulletins will be delivered on our electric toothbrushes. Figuring out how to supply those platforms and compete with them is the challenge we all face.
Even at the networks.
I sympathize with Katie Couric's efforts to do something … well… different… with the "Evening News." It's got a dwindling audience that started to shrink long before CBS dropped into third place. I found out why during the aftermath of the 2000 elections.
I was waiting for the Supreme Court decision (my assignment for that day) and was e-mailing with my stepson Andy, who teaches at New York University. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw on the TV monitor in my office that the decision was about to be handed down. "Gotta run," I e-mailed Andy. "Supreme Court decision coming. Watch it. It's important."
He emailed back immediately. "Where can I watch it?"
"On all the nets," I typed back. "ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN. Turn on your TV."
What Andy emailed me back made the scales drop from my eyes: "Oh Lynn," he wrote. "Television is so '90s. Where can I watch it on the Web?"
And it's not just my kids who aren't watching.
So good luck to all of us as we try to navigate this new terrain. I even wish luck to Katie – but not all that much, since I'm still rooting for Charlie Gibson and "World News Tonight" to win the day at ABC News.
But I wish one of us had the courage to slow down the process, to stand up to the little ones and zeroes rocketing through cyberspace, to say, simply, "Wait. I have something to tell you. It may take longer than three seconds and you may have to take your hand off the remote."
I doubt we'd get through the sentence without someone clicking away.