Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

broadcast news

In TV news these days, the mid-40s count as young. As a 47-year-old, I welcome this recalibration, even though I've always understood middle age to begin—or at least youth to definitively end—at 35. However, TV newspeople now in their mid-30s and early 40s, like George Stephanopoulos and Claire Shipman, are treated like cute, promising, precocious kids. That's because the on-air network news establishment, like the Soviet establishment in its final days, has become a gerontocracy. In the 1980s, much was made of the fact that the average Politburo member was 67 years old, and that the endgame caretakers like Yuri Andropov (68 when he assumed power) and Konstantin Chernenko (72) were all creaky, decrepit old men. "The Last Gerontocracy: Why the anchors are so ancient." By Kurt Andersen Slate, Culturebox column, Tuesday, April 9, 2002 http://slate.msn.com/?id=2064171

So that's why network news anchors are so ancient, relative to everything else you see on television. You know, I'd wondered about that. There seemed to be a sharp disconnect between not only network evening news and morning shows, but between network news and local affiliate news. If you look at local news -- where local stations make a fair chunk of change, one might add -- you see a variety of ages. To be sure, it's a variety skewed in particular ways. The few minority members do, in fact, range all over, from their 30s to their 60s (most in their 40s somewhere, I'd wager). As for non-minority local news anchors, you tend to see positively antique white men, and strikingly younger women. Men are frequently in their 50s and 60s, and women in their mid 30s.

This would also explain another hallmark of local television news operations: age discrimination lawsuits filed by women who get fired by local stations because they get "old". They tend to win these lawsuits, one might add.

Thing is, when this generation of anchors retires or otherwise passes from the scene, it's very likely that network news itself will go. It'll be interesting to see which network decides to get rid of it first. The Big Three will keep looking at Fox, which has never had or wanted network news, and see that it still manages to do fairly well. Networks don't make that much money off their news broadcasts, and given the current battle between networks and their affiliates over income, handing over the network news hour might be one relatively low-pain way to patch over the differences. And in the meantime, despite the fact that for many local stations it's something of a cash cow, other cash strapped local stations cut local news broadcasts, because it's cheaper to pay for a syndicated show and keep the ad income than to pay for the stuidio and the anchors and the crew and all the other overhead that comes along with local news.

Who knows? It may well be that in a few years, television news will only be on specialized networks like CNN or FoxNews (not that Fox' transmissions could be called news quite so much as bigoted bellowings, but that's another issue) or Headline News. Local news may be limited to either very successful independent local stations, such as Chicago's WGN, or local cable operations, such as Chicago's CLTV. (Owned, oddly enough, by the Tribune Company, as is WGN, which has the highest rated local news broadcast. There may be something to all this synergy business that media companies like to trumpet. Again, an issue for another day.)

If broadcast news should go into a decline that steep -- and in many ways, signs are there already -- and with people reading newspapers less and less ... you wonder how people will find out what's going on in the world around them. The actual "news" portion of the morning shows, barring special reports on noteworthy events, is really only about 20 minutes, in chunks of no more than five minutes each, out of two or three hours; big stories are repeated each half hour segment, but how much can you really cover in time that limited? Yes, of course, there's the web, but that requires people to search things out in ways that aren't quite necessary with broadcast news. You can't just have a web page on in the background while you do something else; a phrase or image isn't likely to suddenly grab your attention and make you watch. You have to actively seek out news on the web in a way that's not required with television. The classic divide between network and local news is that network covers items of national and international interest, and local is ... well, local. If you're not getting either one, what happens then?

Maybe it's true. Maybe news has become something that people simply prefer not to know, even though lack of knowledge can be an expensive thing.

Posted by iain at 08:26 AM in category