TV News in the Future
July 2008

by Ron Steinman

The following is an editor's note from the long-running online Web magazine, The Digital Journalist.

"July 2020. Broadcast anthropologists recently discovered a time capsule placed in the ground beneath the skating rink at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. Under the ice since 2010, the neatly folded pages appeared when they floated to the surface during repairs of the freezing system last November. The pages, worn from age, were a yellow-brown around the edges. Telltale stains from coffee cups covered each sheet. Smudges from a dark blue Sharpie and once yellow marking pens dotted other parts of the pages. There were burn holes made by a cigarette at the bottom of the pages. This points to what was once a hectic life in a TV control room. Strewn across the pages in hastily scrawled notes were the normal newsroom expletives that still bubble like oil bouncing and bursting from a frying pan. Interested media historians recognized the pages as an early rundown from one of the then remaining network newscasts. Other experts think the pages may only be producer's notes because they are mostly incomprehensible. The notes on the pages clearly show that major stories ran no more than 10 seconds or approximately 30 words, the equivalent of three-plus lines of actual copy on a vertical half-page. Many stories ran for five seconds, or 15 words if the reader worked fast. As is our custom, we present these notes to you as a public service. We acknowledge that because digital rules the world of information, and most people disregard the past as being too complex to understand anyway, it is important for the American people to know how network news gasped its last breath before its timely death.

"In an effort to save TV news from collapsing under its own failure to recognize what had become a miniscule audience, those in charge of the broadcast networks decided to change how they produced the newscasts. No longer would they present approximately 20 minutes of news in its traditional 30-minute time slot. Acknowledging that the attention span for most viewers was fast approaching less than a few seconds, network management reduced even further the amount of news in favor of more commercials, but with a twist. The commercials would be stealth, rather than the once obviously prepared 10-, 20-, or 30-second spots. Producers opted for product placement, a staple of entertainment shows on TV and in the movies. Executives decided it would be the new paradigm that could help sustain TV news during what were its dark days. Everyone knew the audience got most of its information on the Internet. Despite the fact that fewer people than ever watched the nightly newscasts, executives came up with a way they thought would preserve their fiefdoms. They reasoned they needed to place advertisements in stories wherever they could – on a building, on a table, against a wall, on a lamp shade, on anything in a shot or sequence -- much the way NASCAR drivers advertised for their sponsors on the uniforms they wore and the cars they drove. Realizing even that would not be enough, producers went further, placing ads in stories between pauses the reporters took when reading copy. Once considered deceptive -- which it was -- and time-consuming to do, digital editing and advances in technology made it was far easier to do than in the past. It meant they could reduce mounting costs in news.

"As another change, fashionistas came into the mix. In a new cable reality show, they designed suits for the men and dresses for the women. Younger reporters thought it was great fun to wear these suits and dresses, ties for the men, and ribbons in the hair for women, with various corporate logos covering every inch of fabric. Style consciousness won the day. In fact, the reporters and producers asked for additional product placement, realizing that the many logos emblazoned on their clothing meant they would keep working. If not, they probably would be working in real estate, selling shoes at a discount warehouse or being a barista at a local coffee shop.

"'You should be ashamed of yourselves,' intoned the few remaining media critics. 'We are not,' responded the correspondents and producers, as if in one voice. 'With gas at $15 a gallon and baby needing a new pair of shoes, we cannot do otherwise. Besides, we love the NASCAR look. It has been a long time coming and now we feel part of the mainstream. We have crushed elitism under the economic weight of our multiple sponsors.'

"That all this changed forever how the networks presented news meant very little to the new class of managers who were running the news divisions. Money was all. Information meant little. Staying on the air was everything. The once fruitful days of real news no longer existed.

"Today in 2020, thankfully, that is all behind us. TV news as we once knew it is truly dead. Today, trying to read what is on the suits and dresses of the reporters is part of the game we play when we watch the dwindling minutes of that once proud entity, TV news.

"These pages found under the Rockefeller Center skating rink are currently under weatherproof glass in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Most visitors ignore the display, caring little about TV news' last gasp for legitimacy. In case anyone is curious, the soiled pages are there, as if a fly caught in amber."

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of 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.