When the War Isn't That Important
April 2003

by Jim Parisi

The war is the most important thing going on in our lives isn’t it? I mean, from a viewer’s standpoint, what could be more “Reality TV” than watching our bombs dropping on Iraqi targets every day?

But TV viewers are a strange lot, and because of this, television as we know it is history. Just like for many of our younger viewers, ‘history’ is history. (You’ve heard the stories of how this generation doesn’t know basic milestones in the history of our country, I won’t get into that whole issue right now.)

But most viewers, in their heart of hearts, would rather watch Friends than a Presidential news conference about war with Iraq. And it’s causing major dilemmas for programmers and station executives. At the heart of the matter is what I’ve always believed about ‘diary’ ratings, and surveys and polls: don’t believe any of it. Viewers say what they would watch, but watch something else. Much like no one ever admits to buying those supermarket tabloid papers at the checkout. Well, somebody’s buying them.

For example, if you take a poll right now, and ask if your station’s viewers would rather watch American Idol or the latest war coverage, 75% would say the War coverage. But only 15% will actually watch the war coverage.

So what do we do as news managers when we need to make these programming decisions? When is a Presidential news conference important enough to break into our primetime lineup (i.e. where we make our budget)? We have already seen many of the Presidential news conferences not make air on the networks, something that when I was a child would have been thought to be blasphemy!

But viewers want to live their lives in the routine that comforts them. Perhaps even more so during a time of war. Friends of mine forwarded me a very funny, yet somehow sad e-mail with a voice message attached a few weeks ago. It was a woman who left a screaming message at the TV station, laced with the F-word, almost hysterical because her soap opera wasn’t on that day. What was her gripe? That the Space Shuttle disaster was on instead.

Last week we had a dilemma at our radio station, which is the ‘flagship’ station for all University of Arizona broadcasts. Do we let war coverage eclipse an NCAA playoff game when U of A is the top seed? After we aired all the games the whole season? Besides, we’d be in violation of our contract with the University…and all those stations that air our play-by-play. So when the first game hit, so did the President’s speech. We tried to do both, putting on some of the speech between the pre-game and game. Ended up getting sports fans and those into the President’s talk BOTH upset.

This brings up an age-old controversy: do we give viewers what they want, or what they should want? What they ‘need’ to know and understand what’s happening in our world, or what entertains them? When I developed the first Interactive newscast in 1994, we made sure our ‘first block’ was news they needed to see. Then the rest was news they could choose. It seemed to keep critics at bay and viewers happy.

But now we have a bigger concern. Viewers in many cases would rather see sports, sitcoms and yes, reality TV…instead of the biggest reality show in history: our country at war.

This can’t be a good thing.

© Jim Parisi

(Jim Parisi dabbles in television news management where he specializes in interactive news, is a former anchor/reporter, and is the editor of www.tvnewz.com.)


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