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Guest Essay

Television News in Transition

By Andrew Tyndall

When we look back at the transition of television news from a mass-medium, appointment-viewing model (the network nightly newscasts) to an on-demand, constantly-updated, interactive model (the future), the cable news networks-CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC–will seem a transitional phase between broadcasting and online news.

The initial switch of TV news from broadcast to cable began more than 20 years ago. Back then, what the cable channels could uniquely offer was the constant availability of news. The networks, as general-purpose broadcasters with a variety of non-news programming, could only offer appointment news.

It turns out that the selling point of constant availability consists of two separate appeals: in normal times, news to be watched at whatever hour the viewer chooses; and occasionally, in exceptional times, saturation, continuously-updated coverage of major breaking developments. CNN made its reputation in the 1990s from its coverage of two such breaking events-one serious (the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait), one trivial (gavel-to-gavel coverage of the OJ Simpson murder trial).

Some of the apparent cutbacks in resources at the networks’ news divisions should be properly seen, instead, as diversions. In response to the competition from cable, the networks ceased concentrating on a single in-depth newscast once every 24 hours and diversified their news presence to include the softer morning programs and magazine features during primetime. By 2001, when the September 11th attacks occurred, the networks pre-empted their general programming and competed with the cable news channels directly, offering round-the-clock coverage.

Nevertheless, that exceptional event did not undercut the unique proposition that the cable news channels offered their customers-the cable system operators paying a per-subscriber fee-that they had the exclusive ability to deliver television news 24-hours-a-day.

The most significant news event of 2004, therefore, was the creation of ABC News Now, in which a broadcaster leapfrogged over cable and went directly online. This digital channel is only a harbinger of the future and may or may not turn out to be viable. Even if it fails, however, the model will not. When news consumers get 24-hour TV news from video streaming online, the pricing power of CNN, FNC et al with the cable operators is undercut. They no longer offer a unique product. Their business model is jeopardized.

Furthermore, the journalistic techniques invented to satisfy the demands of 24-hour cable news will not translate to an online television medium. In regular cable programming, absent major breaking developments, those techniques had to satisfy two different audience demands. Casual tuners-in have to be informed of the major stories, requiring regular repetition of the headlines; continuous viewers have to be informed of incremental developments, to reassure them that they are always getting the newest news.

The upshot of these two demands is the cable channels’ extemporaneous format–live reporter stand-ups, voiceover videotapes and interview segments-and their focus on a handful of major stories each day. On any given day, the cable channels have a newshole that is 48 times larger than that of a nightly newscast yet the narrow repetitious, range of their story selection is nowhere near 48 times as broad.

By contrast, one of the main advantages of the nightly newscasts is that they still rely on reported-written-edited correspondent packages, which are more densely written, more well-rounded and more tightly sourced than the standard fare of 24-hour cable news.

In a fairly short time, the cable TV news networks will be superseded by interactive on-line news. When that occurs, viewers will have the benefits of the quality of correspondent packages, which they can download as individual stories, plus the benefits of currency and availability of a 24-hour feed. It may be that the sizeable audiences for cable’s coverage of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 will turn out to have been the peak of its penetration into the news audience. From now on, cable news will lose viewers to online digital TV (via cell phones, via browsers, via satellite…) faster than they gain them from broadcasters.

As for the networks, so much attention in 2004 was devoted to their nightly news anchors, Tom Brokaw’s departure at NBC, Dan Rather’s resignation at CBS. The looming arrival of online TV news means that the big story here is not the succession question-“Who leads the next generation of anchors?”–but the role of the anchorman itself.

Let’s make an analogy with popular music, where digital technology has changed the unit of content from the CD (a collection of tracks) to the track itself. Similarly, a newscast is a collection of taped packages and the role of the anchor is to string them together. When we get our television news online, assignment desks and producers and correspondents and editors will still do the work of choosing stories and covering them.

Stringing them together — we can do that for ourselves.

Andrew Tyndall is president of ADT Research and editor of the Tyndall Report, a daily analysis of network news programming.