Skip to main content

Why TV news matters in the age of information overload

Why TV news matters in the age of information overload


The megaphone: the present and tenuous future of TV news

Share this story

ecosystems news
ecosystems news

“And that’s the way it is.”

For two decades, whenever Walter Cronkite said those words to end his nightly CBS newscast, people believed him. Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, the person we tasked with telling us what was happening and how we should feel about it.

In 2012, there is no Walter Cronkite. If you believe writers like Clay Shirky, there never will be another Walter Cronkite. When endless information, infinite viewpoints, and myriad options are available, the authoritative voice setting the agenda appears to have no place. That shouldn’t just worry proto-Cronkites, either; on its face it seems to spell doom for the TV news industry as a whole. From Brian Williams’ NBC Nightly News to our goofy local anchors, does TV news have a place in the new media landscape?

News is more accessible than ever, but the onus is now on the reader to find it

For now the answer appears to be yes. NBC, ABC, and CBS’s nightly news shows still attract about 7-10 million viewers a night, and though their core audience continues to age (only about a quarter of the nightly shows’ viewers are between 25 and 54, and the rest lie mostly above that age, not below it) it’s still a viable segment of the population. The genre might not go out with its elderly fans, either. As Brian Stelter, media reporter for the New York Times, puts it, there’s always going to be a broad portion of the population that wants to be told what’s important. “There’s always been a big chunk of the country that hasn’t consumed news every day,” said Stelter — a chunk that likes to watch news and be informed by someone else, rather than hunting down the news themselves.

That’s the alternative now, really. News is more accessible than ever, but the onus is on the reader to find it. If you don’t want to watch 22 minutes of TV to understand the world, your alternative is to go find it yourself. That raises plenty of its own problems: there’s more information than anyone can digest and the internet makes it hear only what you want to hear.

Stelter describes three different types of people, who follow the news very differently. There are the uninformed, who don’t really pay attention to anything outside their own purview. There’s also the somewhat informed, who want to know what’s going on but either don’t want to or aren’t able to devote a lot of time to following the news. Then there are news junkies.

Junkies are the people who watch Fox News or MSNBC for hours a day, the viewers who simply can’t get enough. Stelter calls these networks “point-of-view news,” with a clear position and take that is being projected without any pretense of objectivity. He’s quick to point out that though their ratings pale next to network news, these networks are talked about much more. That’s because they appeal to the hyper-involved, the junkies. “That’s the kind of person networks are going after,” Stelter said. “They want to turn everyone into junkies. And that’s why cable news shows are talked about so much, because they’re great at creating junkies.”

Will we never know “the way it is” again?

While CNN and CBS are in a battle to keep the floor from collapsing, Fox News, MSNBC, and their ilk are continuing to grow. Is that the future of news? Are we stuck with a world where no one even pretends to be fair or objective, where any balanced answer is drowned out by Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly? Will we never know “the way it is” again?

What’s next?

TV news’ greatest asset is its reputation, its longevity, its place as the first thing we turn to when something happens. But that may not be the case for the younger population, for whom the internet is like another limb and Twitter the first resource to find out what’s going on.

As the web becomes a bigger and more valuable platform (both to readers and advertisers), shows and networks are starting to experiment with new ways to deliver its product. On election night, most networks offered a service that would send you a text message every time a contested state was decided. Brian Stelter, madman, signed up for all of them. “I got maybe ten from NBC, which was fine — but I really appreciated that, because A, it’s more personal, and B, a lot of television is about drama to keep you watching. It’s about bombast, and the proverbial trumpets and noise that go along with news. These alerts had none of that. These alerts had none of the music, none of the pomp and circumstance. And I liked that; I appreciated that. I liked having the option to turn up the volume and listen to that stuff as well.”

“Keeping you watching for as long as possible is TV’s endgame.”

Bombast, trumpets, pomp and circumstance. Many of the things that work so well on TV don’t translate online, where we’ve been trained to expect what we want, when we want it. That will force networks to reconsider how these shows are created, especially as digital-first content becomes more important. “Keeping you watching for as long as possible is TV’s endgame,” Stelter said. “That’s why you see endless teases — sometimes the best stories are kept until the end of the show, or the best videos are at the end. The web rejects that principle entirely.”

One example of how to do a TV show for the new era, Stelter said, is Good Morning America. On the surface, shows like Good Morning America and Today are even more at risk in the YouTube- and podcast-filled world — where it’s almost impossible to find someone not talking at you for hours. But they soldier on, and GMA in particular has been a ratings success. Stelter says it’s because the show takes advantage of the internet. “I think it’s one of the reasons they started winning this year. Instead of ignoring the web, they have little specks of it all over the show.”

“If you’re a morning show,” Stelter said, “you’re sitting around thinking ‘what can we do that the web can’t do? Well, the web has these funny videos, but we have these personalities people love to watch. We can watch these videos and laugh about them, make jokes about them, and enjoy them’ — it’s like sitting around YouTube with a bunch of friends. That may sound silly, but it’s an added value the web can’t have — unless you’re in Google Hangout or something.”

Good Morning America and Today, and NBC, CNN, and CBS’s newscasts, all share one common advantage beyond the funny Al Roker jokes you won’t hear anywhere else: they end. Ravi Hiranand, Senior Producer at CNN International, says this is a huge asset for his show, News Stream. “A TV news show has a finite length. So I can’t show you every single photo of Superstorm Sandy’s power. I have to select the most powerful ones, the most important ones, and I can try to explain to people who might not necessarily know anything about New York why a particular image is so striking.”

We desperately need to know which of the ten thousand stories we hear every day is most important

That kind of editorial control and restraint might be more important than ever in 2012, when websites are set up to present the non-stop flow of Instagram photos of Hurricane Sandy. Hiranand sees his show not as the only source of news, but as a platform from which you’re free to dive as deep as you want. “Many of the videos we show of violence inside Syria are posted straight to YouTube by people from inside the country. You could find them yourself on YouTube. But our job hasn’t changed: We have to take it and explain it… We won’t just show you the video, but we’ll tell you where it’s from, why that area matters, and whether we’ve seen fighting there before.”

What Hiranand calls a filter, Stelter calls an amplifier. But both agree that TV news has a new role, perhaps of equal importance. We don’t need to know what’s happening — Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and our favorite blogs handle that just fine — but we desperately need to know which of the ten thousand stories we hear every day is most important, and why. TV news’s opportunity is to ignore fake stories, the non-stories, and the trivial stories, and tell us what really matters.

Maybe we need Walter Cronkite more than ever.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve