To counter dipping audience figures and falling advertising revenues, TV news increasingly offers a diet of soft stories, banal banter and Identikit blondes. Who is to blame, a public unwilling to engage with global affairs, or the networks trying to brand news as entertainment?
For five decades TV news stations have been looking for the formula that glues an audience and advertisers to their stations – a magic glue of content and presentation. That’s why in recent years, in a vivid representation of globalisation, TV news has begun to look the same around the world. And it has also increasingly looked, well, dumb.
Frank Magid, the founder of the Magid news consulting business, is the man most often held responsible for the standardisation of news and newscasters. Yet even he claims this homogenisation is debasing the news. “We try to push risk and innovation, but we’re up against people who want to emulate,” he says.
One of the ironies of the electronic age is that as sources and channels multiply, variation diminishes. News is troublesome, expensive to produce and difficult for media corporations to value. The dirty secret of 24-hour news, with its repeating 15-minute headlines cycle, weather updates and urgent delivery, is its tiny audiences. The traditional evening broadcasts from the big three US networks have been losing viewers for years, and those who do watch are aged beyond desirability to advertisers.
To stop the rot, CBS lured Katie Couric from NBC’s Today morning show to its own flagship evening news broadcast six months ago. Despite numerous format changes, it’s not yet clear if Couric will be successful. The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric includes more women’s features than hard news, there are fewer male reporters and brighter background colours. Couric displays the dilemma of TV news – that its content is designed to desensitise as much as to inform.
News anchors are the friendly, desexualised ideal; they exist behind a gauze of cheeriness and perfect hair and offer reports of bad events packaged attractively, so that their meaning is deliberately mislaid. Newscasters are our high priestesses, available but invulnerable, softly lit in pearls and flawless make-up.
Even in this rapidly changing news environment, with audiences fragmenting and revenues declining, the conformity of the media is striking. Critics say it’s not just the choice of programming that’s predictable: the presentation has become so slick, conversational and standardised as to be meaningless. In the studio, in the snowdrift or at the scene of the crime, the TV news reporter has become a meaningless pop culture cliché.
“Everybody copies the same, false degree of friendliness and interaction. But audiences can tell the difference between what is genuine and what is not, says Magid. Blaming the consultant, however, is like blaming Rupert Murdoch for the tabloidisation of the media: he has certainly played his part, but he is a big easy-to-hit target. A former professor of sociology at the University of Iowa who began selling research on the likes and dislikes of viewers to news stations in the 1960s, Magid’s news innovations are now so accepted that we barely notice them.
Most news organisations, including the BBC, have consulted with the company, and many reporters have visited its Iowa headquarters for three-day coaching sessions where they are taught correct diction, facial expression, the seamless hand-over to on-the-scene reporters, the happy talk, the perfect waterfall hair-dos and the furrowless brows.
“We deal with how newscasters come across,” explains Magid. “People react to words and the means by which they are delivered.” But he, too, warns against too much conformity: “People who break away from the blandness and establish a degree of uniqueness are the people who really profit in this business.”
Being abreast of the news, of course, also confers social respect or what Bill Hague, senior vice-president at Magid Associates, calls “social grease”. The internet, he says, has changed our expectations. “We want what we want, how, when and where we want it. To expect viewers to wait for the late news is unrealistic. To get people’s attention you have to differentiate, to add something more.”
Content may be king, but never underestimate sex appeal. Long before Nicole Kidman played a deadly weather girl in To Die For, the TV blonde in a tight sweater had been in the ascendant. Slate.com TV critic Jack Shafer recently pointed out that “the proliferation of TV blondes will come as news only to the blind and those who have killed their TV.”
Resembling a surreal holiday parade, the website TVheads.com has assembled 50,000 headshots of US anchor women. Most conform to an ideal of TV beauty – blonde, pert, symmetrical, with good teeth and an open smile accessorised with a touch of desexualised, puritan kinkiness. A glance at its image bank tells much about acceptable standards of attractiveness.
Shafer assembled TV’s talking heads according to the “blondness periodic table”, an idea of superiority first advanced by the anthropologist Grant McCracken in Big Hair: A Journey Into The Transformation of Self. It features six categories: bombshell blonde (Laurie Dhue on Fox); sunny blonde (Katie Couric on CBS); brassy blonde (Fox’s E D Hill); dangerous blonde (CNN’s Nancy Grace); society blonde (Fox’s Janice Dean); and cool blonde (CNN’s resident populist republican, Lou Dobbs).
If blonde hair signifies purity, it would go some way to explain why TV’s anchorwomen always go lighter, never darker. Chemically blonde, with the haircut and the spray-on tan (Fox in New York has its own spray booth), the TV beauty is always evolving. A newer trend – “Fox lips”, plumped-up lips that first appeared on Fox News – is now all over the spectrum, and the globe, because nothing travels as fast as fashion.
Viewers might be undecided about whether they like TV news delivered by a TV starlet or the old-school Voice of God newscasters. News corporations, however, are consistent: they like ratings and profits. And despite the discomfort of being a TV news reporter, it is still considered desirable. Unlike being an actress, you get regular airtime and local fame. “Thousands of women are choosing to go into the business,” says Adam Kirschner, a New York talent agent specialising in news, sport and weather casters. “It’s so competitive, they’ll stand in the snow on a freelance job for News 12 Connecticut.”
But as audiences and news budgets shrink, the pressure to conform increases. Once started, the cycle of blandness is hard to escape. “It’s the result of hyper-capitalism,” says Mark Feldstein, a former TV news reporter and now associate professor of media & current affairs at George Washington University. “The erosion of audience share is much larger than any news star can reverse.”
Still, the appetite for news is not changing, it’s just arriving in different ways. With several decades of experience in the consultation business, Magid says he’s no closer to answering the questions presented by human behaviour.
“People,” he says, “are more interested in the reality of things. They have a desire to see genuineness, in situations that are not fake.” But, he claims, “there is no one-size-fits-all. When you subscribe to that, you’re doomed to failure.”
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If there was ever a Golden Age of American television news, it came and went with the Cold War. In the 1950s Edward R Murrow, the dean of American broadcast journalists, was able to convince CBS News to air the hard-hitting public affairs programmes that network owners shy away from these days. Murrow’s exposé of Senator McCarthy’s sleazy witch-hunt was a high point.
Abroad, US networks supported a worldwide corps of foreign correspondents that was rivalled only by the BBC. In the 1980s, CBS allowed me to roam through the closed world of communist Eastern Europe and spot the cracks in the communist empire. News editors rarely talked about budgets in those days.
That changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The networks closed bureaux, fired correspondents, and turned news into infotainment. Cheap celebrity news, health tips and lifestyle stories trumped what was going on in the real world.
By 1997 the networks reached the point where I was unable to convince CBS to send me to Afghanistan for a meeting I’d arranged with Osama Bin Laden. It would have been his first interview with US TV, but my bosses were not interested in hearing the views of an Arab. Sadly, 9/11 has not made networks more responsible. They still have too few reporters and too little real newsgathering. Cable news hasn’t filled the gap. Although CNN et al report from places the US networks no longer cover, they reach a smaller audience.
What can be done? In the US, the federal government could reinstate the requirement that broadcasters must provide a public service – real news – in return for free use of the airwaves. That’s the way it used to be, before the networks lobbied Congress to deregulate broadcasting.
British television news has fared better. The fact that licence fees pay for the BBC, means it can afford foreign correspondents. Some complain it’s going downmarket, but for me, it’s still the gold standard of broadcast news. So I’m happy that the British government has renewed its funding. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Tom Fenton spent 34 years reporting for CBS News. He is the author of ‘Bad News’