Why Has TV News Lagged Behind Entertainment TV?

July 15th, 2006 4:30 PM

At the beginning of each TV season, the cable and broadcast television networks trot out their new lineups for an ever-jaded and cynical bunch, the nation's TV critics. Despite their grousing about shows, Aaron Barnhart writes, tv crix realize they shouldn't be complaining because in many ways, entertainment television has never been better in this country than it is now. So why is it that news television fails to inspire much enthusiasm? My thoughts follow this excerpt from Barnhart's piece:

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? [...]

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."

There's a lot to Barnhart's diagnosis. In terms of its format, there's nothing new about television news. As things are currently, there's too much of a focus on sensationalism and shouting on TV news.

What we need instead is a focus on providing important news in a manner that's entertaining and informative. That has been done with talk radio it can be done with television. Here, I think "Daily" can be instructive, not for being suffused with liberal bias or poor research, but for its more conversational, less patronizing approach to the audience. It is, offensive as "Daily's" left-wing host Jon Stewart would find it, Fox News 2.0.

Before Fox, TV news was even worse than it is today. Things are much better without the likes of arrogant, snooty blowhards like Ed Murrow, Ted Koppel or Eric Engberg who talked down to the audience. Since FNC's success, things have loosened up in TVland but there's still a long way to go before we can have news shows that are both intelligent and entertaining.