Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Throwing money at an unsolvable problem is exemplified by this $500k local TV news set design leaked to dcrtv.com.
During this past Sunday’s typically gruesome edition of Timmy Russert’s pretend political roundtable, the “journalists” reached new heights of purposely-misdirected hypocrisy when discussing the Armstrong Williams pundit-for-pay contretemps.
But, within the faux outrage and I’d like to think purposeful fingering of competitive punditry, was a not quite frank mention of the more ubiquitous than discussed Video News Release:
MR. RUSSERT: These are pseudo news releases where you have a fake journalist sitting there interviewing a Cabinet secretary and materials are sent out across the country. What serious or legitimate news organization would ever air something like that?
MR. YORK: Well, obviously, the networks don't do it, but they are aired on smaller stations or on very small cable outlets.
Not quite, guys.
Far from Tim’s misleading description of fake journalists and Cabinet Secretaries, for more than 20 years and based on knowledge stemming from my 30-year career in television, the Video News Release has been a staple of local television medical and show business news.
Thanks to the convenient and widely applied excuse of budget cutbacks, as time passed, VNR’s intruded deeper into spot news (police blotter stuff like fires, drownings and robberies) and local political news coverage of national issues and into, what some would like to consider, the sacred territory of network news no matter some punditry’s claim to the contrary.
Budget cutbacks also allowed, increasingly powerful and downsized by merger, corporate heads to slowly eliminate more senior and less malleable journalistic voices in newsrooms across America while increasingly intimidating those who remained.
It all began with the introduction of 3rd party “experts” who celebrated images, or more particularly dramatic images, over all other journalistic considerations.
As cable began to erode broadcast media’s hold on the American audience in the early 1980’s, panicked executives, eager to avoid responsibility for decisions in an increasingly arbitrary marketplace, sought the addictive comforts of 3rd party marketing consultants.
These outside marketing strategists discovered they could achieve incremental rating increases within the continuous downtrends by luring the weakest viewing mentalities with escalating flash and titillation.
To achieve those ends, under the lofty guise of deregulation, rules that had moderated media excess and promoted fairness were jettisoned and corporate accountants began their slow synergistic creep into the once federally protected newsrooms.
The 3rd party marketers earliest mocking assaults were against stories or televised discussions unsupported with illustrative images.
The best stories, in the marketer’s opinion, were not just those with supporting images but those with dramatic supporting images.
Ad rates could still be floated with rating winners no matter the declining size of the winning slice of pie and corporate media profit remained at their normally obscene levels.
Over the passing years a story’s relevance to a given local audience grew to become irrelevant if an image dripped a marketer’s idea of drama and the phrase “if it bleeds it leads” was born, to the American peoples’ detriment, out of journalistic wedlock.
Video News Releases not only offer images for hard to visualize stories they also offer completed productions that emulate the stories produced by local and national television reporters.
These “fake news releases”, as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell describes them, arrive in cutback gutted newsrooms with completed scripts and editing guidelines so that a local producer can remove the generic VNR reporter and insert a more familiar local face reading a script prepared by an unmentioned pharmaceutical house, movie studio, another television station or, nowadays, a political party or government agency.
But the 1980’s brought more than the birth of TV marketing consultants, sizzle outpacing steak and the erosion of audience trust for a media business most executives, until quite recently, considered the only game in town.
Sadly for big established media the 1980’s also saw the germination of the electronic seeds of their destruction within the expanding and personally empowering reaches of what in 1989 would become the World Wide Web.
The 3rd party marketers have always felt that increasing titillation or sizzle through brightly colored and increasingly graphic images could insure large audiences and established media profit.
And, perhaps there is a baseline of humanity’s dregs that will, as long as old-style mass audience television survives, fall prey to this demeaning bait but I, personally, don’t think so.
Big media never envisioned that they would grow to be so hated and ensnared in trust-evaporating scandals.
But, they are and they have.
Personalized content on demand is the future.
We will surely see more years of mass media’s death-throes and the successful adaptation of some big media to the new environment.
It won’t be pretty.
Big media, not likely to be regulated any time soon, remains more than capable of harming the unread masses of American people with salacious falsifications as they are dragged kicking and screaming from center stage.
I know many on the web are trying to correct this and I pray that more people forge their own unique informational path along, this ironic blessing to democracy, the Pentagon’s old Internet.
Watch the Museum of Media History 2014
A great article on TV News in the postmodern world of 2005 can be found on the fantastic Digital Journalist site.
And, for those of you with broadband connections this excellent 8-minute flash production from the Museum of Media History 2014 shows where we are headed.
Images: dcrtv.com, gatech.edu