What Happened to TV News?

I was cruising my favorite blogs last night and at one point wandered over to Eric Martin’s Total Information Awareness (highly recommended, and not just because he comments here). Eric has written an excellent piece on how the Neocon Wonder Boys used the CPA to make Iraq a guinea pig for their loopy economic theories and shows how that experimentation has a direct relationship to Iraq’s economic disintegration since the Occupation began. It’s a great post and you should read it to be up to speed–he connects a lot of the dots–but that’s not what this post is about.

In the comments to that post, a regular TIA commenter named ‘jonnybutter’ lamented, as many of us do, the fact that our media, especially tv, won’t cover important stories like this one with any degree of regularity or consistency any more. He said he thought there had to be ‘a market out there for that’. I responded by relating the story of the Turner station that tried to shift to a hard-news format and lost the ratings war Big Time, returning to HappyNews only a few months later. jb’s response to that was, ‘It didn’t used to be that news HAD to make a profit.’ Which is entirely untrue and got me to thinking (always dangerous) that a lot of people are under that impression and that it’s important that we understand what actually happened. Because it may not be what you think happened.

The decline in news standards and therefore quality has never–NEVER–been a result of news divisions not making a profit. Networks often present their choice this way: ‘We can do hard news and go broke, or we can do HappyNews and make money. We’re in the business to make money.’ That, not to put too fine a point on it, is a crock. News divisions make a LOT of money for the networks and always have, even in the bad old days when they were doing hard news and giving the Richard Nixons of this world a run for their money. This isn’t a choice between bankruptcy and solvency, it’s a choice between a lot of profit and a lot more profit.

That Turner station, even though it was dead last in the ratings, was still making a profit, just not as much as it had when it wasn’t last. In the 70’s, CBS News was making so much money it could keep the entire network afloat at a time when its entertainment programming was doing a Dying Swan act. Network news divisions have always been profitable, and the reason is simple: as expensive as a network news show is, it is 1/10 the cost of producing a prime-time, one-hour drama series and yet you can charge the same amount of money for advertising on it as for advertising on the series.

Network news shows were–have always been–and are now major league Cash Cows. They pump money into the system that gets spread around to all the other divisions. A series has to be a runaway, blow-em-off-the-charts hit before it even begins to compete with the profitability of news shows. This was even truer in the days when they did hard news than it is today when they don’t.

It wasn’t losing money that was the catalyst for the switch, it was a combination of two prime factors that resulted in their making less profit than they had been. The first was increasing competition from alternate sources. Starting in the mid-80’s, cable news was a viable competitor; by the early 90’s, it was an out-and-out rival, stealing audience by the millions from the networks whose overall ratings began to slip. Their audience share (that’s what they call it in the business) went down as the cable share came up and their advertising rates fell accordingly. This was endemic–it had nothing to do with the news divisions, which were only slightly less profitable than they had been–but the increased competition forced the networks to look for ways to maintain their audience share and keep revenues up.

The second prime factor is a little more complicated. To understand it, we have to back to the genesis of HappyTalk in the early 80’s. Remember ‘It’s Morning in America!’? Ronald Reagan ran his campaign on a HappyTalk formula: ‘Everything is wonderful. Don’t worry. Be happy.’ When he died, you may have noticed that the one word everybody applied to him in honoring his life was ‘optimism’. That’s all we heard–how ‘optimistic’ he was, and how they would never forget what an ‘optimist’ he was, on and on and on, over and over, ad inifinitum. Remember that because it’s important.

Now come the early years of the Reagan Administration and Ronnie is making idiotic statements about how trees pollute and how welfare recipients were buying Cadillacs with food stamps and how you can lower taxes and still raise revenues (‘So as the budget gets more and more out of balance, it balances out–PERFECT!’ as Jackie Mason summarizes Ronnie’s budget policy). Almost everything he says is demonstrably, factually untrue (sound familiar?), and the press–hot off the high of the Watergate scandals–calls him on it. They are not ‘vicious’ or ‘murderous’ or ‘hateful’; in fact, they’re more amused by his blatant ignorance than anything else. They poke a little gentle fun at him but everybody’s having a hard time believing the guy really believes what he’s saying; they think it’s just politics. After all, the President of the United States can’t be that pig-ignorant, can he?

What happened next was both brilliant and terrifying. Since Barry Goldwater’s quixotic presidential bid in 1964, right-wing tycoons like the Mellons and Joseph Coors and corporations like GE and Boeing had been lavishing money on a whole new group of think-tanks with a single mission: destroy the ‘liberal press’. The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Insitute, the Cato Institute, and others worked night-and-day for 15 years to come up with a plan that would work. Not surprisingly, they did. In 1982, they began to put that plan into action.

Using surrogates, an early version of astro-turf, and the core of conservative pundits like Bill Kristol and George Will that they had managed to place in positions of influence inside the major American media outlets, they orchestrated an across-the-board assault on that media. What was the main weapon in that assault? Outrage over the way the ‘liberal media’ was picking on Reagan. Here was this decent, gentle man (that’s how he came across on tv; he was an actor, after all) pilloried by a decadent liberal press just because he made a few ‘mis-statements’. That wasn’t why they were going after him, said the attsckers. They were going after him because he was an optimist, not a Carterian pessimist; because he said positive things about America instead of focusing on all the negative stuff; because he was trying to build America up and the liberal press wanted to tear America down.

Ordinary people responded, ‘Yeah, how come you’re always giving us the bad news? Why don’t you tell us what’s good for a change?’ and the next thing you know newspapers and networks were flooded with angry letters and phone calls demanding that they leave Ronnie alone and stop trying to pull America down into the gutter. Profits plummeted. Some newspapers went under. Even the all powerful Big Three networks suffered. Dan Rather became for a while the Most Hated Man in America because he continued to report Reagan’s lies and fantasies about reality, but even he–the most respected anchorman around at the time–was finally forced to cave in to the assault.

It was unprecedented. It changed everything. Reporting a president’s lies or ‘mis-statements’ had become taboo–‘disrespectful’, they called it–but worse, reporting bad news had become an invitation to a pig roast, and the press was the pig. In spite of the pressure, it wasn’t the reporters who caved, and it wasn’t the editors. It was the owners, the publishers, the CEO’s, the BOD’s, and most often and most telling of all, the Ad depts. There’s a moment in the movie The Electric Horseman when a corporate CEO, his assistant, and his PR guy are in a limo. The CEO wants the press, especially tv, to take a certain slant on this story. The PR guy balks at the idea of approaching the news department and ordering them to do the story a certain way, not for ethical considerations but because he doesn’t think it will work. The CEO’s assistant then explains patiently, ‘You don’t talk to the news department. You talk to the advertising department and let them talk to the news department.’ And that’s pretty much in a nutshell how it went.

In other words, the plight of the press today is a direct result of wholesale intimidation; they’re not losing money and they never have; they’re afraid they might start losing money if they don’t treat popular conservative presidents wih kid gloves. They’ve never forgotten the mid-80’s and the scare it threw into them. Sometimes I think they never will.

There’s more to this, but that’s enough for now.

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