The Digital Journalist
Talk Is Cheap

by Ron Steinman

August 2006

Telling stories through words and pictures is fast entering the dustbin of TV journalism. Because of this, I believe we are witnessing the death of storytelling in television news.

Consider that almost everything on TV news is talk, talk, all the time. It is cheaper to produce talk than it is to produce stories with pictures from the scene of the event. Especially on cable TV, news is verbiage to the extreme. Reporters stand in place, usually in front of something a producer tells them makes sense to the scene the reporter inhabits. He or she gives us the news, most of which these days we already know. Because it is a well-dressed man or woman using newspeak that he or she believes will get his or her message across, news management believes it is doing its job of informing the public. We, the audience, are poorer for it because the purveyors of news do not inform. That rare combination of picture and sound that first drew me to the world of TV news is missing.

Watching Movietone News in a movie theater as a kid was thrilling. Then, as television became a dominant force in our lives, the idea of words, sound and pictures ruled TV news for decades. Still a powerful and wonderful source of information, what TV news once was, is now hopelessly outdated. Look at news on cable and you will know what I mean. Talk has always been a four-letter word. Still is. Always will be. It does not mean we learn anything by hearing the story told by someone standing uncomfortably on a location that can be anywhere. The beauty of storytelling with pictures is that the viewer often sees things that the reporter either missed or did not have time to use in the narrative. We also, if we are fortunate, see less of the reporter.

At NBC News many years ago, I produced special broadcasts of important events, often as they were happening. At that time, upper management was leery of experts coming on the air immediately after an important news conference or speech, or any other event that warranted special coverage. News managers thought there was no need for so-called experts to regale the audience with their take on what we just heard or witnessed. In executive meetings, senior management wondered why our reporters needed help in explaining what just took place or in some cases, what would continue taking place. I was not then nor am I now opposed to experts. Staff in TV news even then needed help in understanding the news. Today they need help more than ever.

Experts began to appear regularly on network news shows. An unstoppable wave started at the three networks and exploded when cable became a broadcasting force with all news all the time. Many specialists have agents who promote their talking heads and negotiate their fees. In time of war retired military officers – or if a serious domestic crisis, well-dressed men and women from academia, think tanks, or commerce - appear on the air to give what the anchor tells the audience is informed opinion. These people supposedly knew more than television’s own working journalists did. In fact, many producers depend on them to fill time, and to provide us, the audience, with information and ideas we do not have at our fingertips. It is also a slap at the preparedness and quality of its own staff.

As costs rose to produce standard news – meaning seeing a reporter in the field and footage of the event he or she is describing – pundits became fixtures at the networks and then on cable as it started to take over the news landscape. When a reporter has to be always on the air there is no time to report the story from the ground where he or she supposedly is at work. That should not surprise any working journalist.

Instant analysis is everywhere on the tube all day. It is how news divisions function. Groups of experts, seated around a table, but usually seated in a row in front of a host, answer questions, argue their cause, try to explain an event, or action. They are there on TV, everywhere at once, to give simple answers and help us understand our increasingly complicated lives. But simplifying a complex subject does not bring knowledge. In the past, we at least had the sense of transmitting substance over style. Style now trumps substance. Today speed outweighs deliberate thought. Instant analysis of events large and small, meaningful and not so meaningful is normal. Analysts appear on the TV screen at a moment's notice to tell us what they think, so we will know how to think, I guess.

Have you noticed how everything has "hurry up" attached to it? We do not want to wait in line. We hate waiting on the phone for technical assistance or any advice. Fast-food service is not fast enough. Pop-top cans do not pop off with the speed they should. In our affluent society, we have become an impatient people. This extends to news and information in television, on radio and in newspapers and magazines. We want to know not only what is happening, and how, but we want to know why. That is why we have the annoying bottom line crawl on newscasts everywhere in the world, as well on Web sites devoted to news. That means we are watching news on news. Nothing beats overkill.

Look closely at many of the currently produced pieces on TV news shows. Correspondents still do stories but these have fewer pictures than in the past. Previously, we did a standup one of three ways: to open the piece, in the middle to bridge from one section to another, and/or to close the piece on camera with the sign-off. Now reporters on screen dominate pieces. The reporter walks, leans, pauses, stands, stops, and talks. This saves money and time from the days when crews used to get footage to cover what the reporter was saying.

Notice the preponderance of graphics using high-tech software. This also saves time and money previously spent on camera crews, producers, travel and subsistence in the production of a TV report. Cheaper and faster, the techniques used on all TV news shows are the same. They take little creative energy to produce. Still photos. Maps. Documents. Fancy moves. The software is remarkable. Producers, with the help of graphic artists, dazzle the audience with trickery and devices they believe make sense of the story.

There is a problem, though. These tactics lack humanity, personality, and heart. Though filled with information, they leave us gasping for breath because they come fast and furious, filling the screen with energy that often does little to advance the story. The screen looks good, but what you see could just as well be on any number of news Web sites, or even in your daily newspaper. It all looks the same. This trend started years ago with network magazine shows to save money. In other words, show a document or set of photos and fool the audience into believing what they are watching is an investigative report worth your time and energy.

This is my fantasy, or hallucination, if you will, of what goes on at CNN, Fox, Headline News, MSNBC, CNBC, and the others of their ilk, network and local. Each company has a holding room distinct from the Green Room used by TV shows on normal days. In this room, lined up like chickens in a coop, sit analysts of every kind prepared to go on at a moment's notice and pontificate at the whim of the news producers on duty and their anchors seated comfortably behind a desk. When the expert finishes, back into the chicken coop he or she goes to await his or her next appearance.

The Internet is even worse than TV is now or ever was. Immediate gratification for the millions tuning into their hand-held devices is more important than giving the listener or viewer what passes for an understanding of the world they live in. It makes every other way of gaining and seeking awareness of events old before its time.

Instant analysis by commentators who dish out their opinions and interpretations of events rules the airwaves. Instead of giving us the unfiltered news that will allow us to form our own opinions, unbridled commentary is a major problem with television news today. I do not believe we will ever easily solve this predicament on TV. The old-fashioned reporting we once lived with is just too expensive.

When there is a big story, TV news covers it thoroughly. Throw a blanket on the story, we used to say, smother it with correspondents, crews and get all the pictures available and then some. All to the good, but then TV news covers hardly anything else. Are resources at TV news networks so limited that all other news suffers? Sure, we get the "big picture" but we get almost nothing else. The trade-off does not suffice and the public is ill served. Is it because we have weaker news executives who take the path of least resistance about covering other news? I do not have that answer. The big story, only. Any other story gets mere mention and we, the news consumers, suffer and will continue to do so into the future.

Except there is more, and I would be remiss to neglect mentioning it. There is always more when television news executives try to show us how committed they are to journalism with a capital J. Both MSNBC and CNBC, cable arms of NBC Universal, are about to change their stripes, at least partly. The head of NBC News recently announced that each of those cable channels would devote more time to documentary programming and less time to talk. "Dateline," NBC's major news magazine, is now on only once a week. Probably many pieces have been in preparation which have no place to land, especially now that "Dateline" devotes much of its time to policing the Internet of child pornography and predators, and so little time to what, even for that show, used to pass for real news.

NBC hired two well-known producers to plan documentary-style – their word, not mine - programs for CNBC. MSNBC will also have a two-hour block of documentary-style programming each night. I can hear the creaking archive doors opening as overset spills onto the cutting room floor. Many producers currently under contract will have a place to work as they run out the string until their contracts expire. It sounds good on paper but I cannot see these efforts lasting long-term. GE will wake up one day and realize it is bleeding money for an audience probably smaller than the New York Upper West Side neighborhood where I live.

It might not seem so, but I applaud these efforts. With audiences so small, only time will tell how long these ambitious projects will last. Good luck.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.