TV News in Transition
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One of broadcast journalism’s power couples reminisce about their start in the industry, and discuss changes they’ve weathered, from global crises and anchor turnovers to the rise of cable and the much ballyhooed notion of technological convergence.
Neal Shapiro and Juju Chang both started at the bottom at ABC: Chang as a “gopher” ripping Telex copy, and Shapiro as a “glorified intern.” Shapiro recalls ABC’s eagerness to come out of last place in the three-way broadcast news race, throwing ‘incredible resources” at the chance of exclusives. Shapiro was at NBC when the climate changed for that network, and subsequently for the others, as “big corporations wanted news divisions to make money.”
Chang describes how newsrooms, which have “a kind of family dynamic,” are acutely conscious of ratings. You’ll see “jockeying for position” and “reporters fighting for scraps.” There are minute-by-minute breakdowns of audience responses to shows, and while networks “don’t want to program toward the ratings,” reporters “are assigned the stories that rate well,” says Chang.
Shapiro, who oversaw the expansion of Dateline NBC from one to five nights a week, says news magazine shows serve a unique purpose: Networks produce and own all the material and can repurpose stories to fill different timeslots. When Shapiro took over NBC, just after 9/11 (“the biggest story of my lifetime”), he sought an approach to the crisis different from the other networks. He took his newsmagazine journalists and “unleashed them on the breaking news world.”
While cable news and reality TV pose a challenge to the three networks, Shapiro believes “There will always be a place for long-form storytelling” and that the audience for evening news is still enormous (26-30 million), and “won’t go away for a while.” The network anchor will continue to be the go-to figure “when the world falls apart.”
Programming for a variety of outlets, including cable and the internet and even cell phones, poses the danger of depleting the energies of the networks. “We need to play in all these platforms,” says Shapiro, and the “content needs to differ from medium to medium.” Chang says that producing pieces for the web to attract viewers both to the website and to the broadcast “taxes our time.”
During the Q&A period, the speakers answer questions about the popularity of the Jon Stewart show, the passivity of the news media in response to the Bush Administration, and the increasing lack of analysis and perspective on television news.
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