What’s wrong with TV: a theory

In the pet theory department, I’m convinced I can explain why TV news is so bad, and how it happened over the last 30/40 years.

17 Responses to “What’s wrong with TV: a theory”

  1. Mary

    One thing to add: From experience, I know that the aspect of every story the media emphasizes is carefully and purposefully chosen–and this is clearly one more thing that makes TV news bad.

    Here is what I mean by this: my house burned down about five years ago. Strangely, little in the local newspaper was about the fire or the family or how to help; instead, it focused on the fact that the accidental fire was started by a piece of hot shrimp. It became a local joke: Oh, your house is the one the shrimp burned down! Ha Ha! I remember that!

    Unfortunately, my young son, the one who burned the shrimp, got harassed for it mercilessly, even though he was a minor and his name was left out. His schoolmates knew it was him. Poor kid had to have therapy.

    Since that time, when I read about house fires in the news or see them on TV, I have noticed that they are always looking to sensationalize the story, make it something more than an unfortunate accident, and make the poor families suffer more than the fire itself could inflict. This sensationalism, in my mind, is what makes TV news bad.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Great story Mary – thanks.

      It is quite a thing to have a story about you on TV or in news. Suddenly you realize how the story they tell has only a thin relationship to the story you know, or that they’ve chosen to emphasize a trivial part, and make in the centerpiece.

      Then you realize this must be true in degrees for most news stories told most of the time.

  2. Jon Stahl

    TV news is under tremendous economic pressure (as you allude to), and as such, they are trying to produce the most ratings points for the least dollars. This leads them to cover stories that are inexpensive to cover. That means: fast and predictable. Crime stories are easy, because you know in advance exactly where to send your reporters — to the police station. In most cases, you also know the story outline in advance, and just have to fit the facts into the frame. Ditto for weather and sports.

    1. Scott Berkun

      That’s a good point – I’m a fan of these small heuristics as they make much more sense than conspiracy theories. The cost per story metric explains many things that just happen to have negative social effects. The goal isn’t necessarily the negative social effect, it could just be cost per story.

  3. Bill Drissel

    Anyone who gets his notions of prevalence from news media gets things all wrong. Bruce Schneier says words like: “Don’t worry about anything you see on TV. It’s only on TV because it almost never happens.”

  4. Divya

    Everything mentioned is also what is wrong with newspapers too! And to think we base our history on such biased and almost incorrect reportage!

  5. Carol

    How do people fit in 6 hours a day? We’re not home and awake 6 hours a day, after getting home from work and making dinner and taking care of other necessities. 99% of everything I watch (unless it’s extreme local weather) is pre-tivoed, and days, if not weeks or seasons old. We stop only for Mac vs PC commercials.

    This number of hours must be inflated by people who (like my parents did) leave the TV on every waking hour, watched or not.

  6. Jorge

    The H1N1 (wrongly media-baptized suine flu) daily news coverage we’re getting in Europe attests to Stahl rationale: just be at the hospital or home were this last case happened.
    It gets 5mins piece for each travel… outline is the pre-known.

    It doesn’t matter that the rate of contamination and deaths is much lower than anticipated and not nearly in public-concern district. There’s no 10min piece on the fact that 3 out of 4 doctors refuse the vaccine… that would take serious, long and detailed investigations.
    That takes time and money to do, and all the internships are busy with “gas station robbery” covering.

  7. Dwight Bobson

    I agree with most of your theory except the PBS influence. It had none. commercial networks could care less about public TV. What influences them is profits. I’m afraid unbridled greed is the culprit.
    Remember that the original network owners were broadcasters. Now the owners are anything but … GE, Viacom, Murdock, conglomerate, inc. Networks and news are profit centers right out of some business school case study. The purpose of programming is to maximize profits. The goal: he who has more toys, wins. Of course, in the case of Murdock, assuming you read his history of what he did to the press in England, he has moved from profits to power.
    The use of people like Frank Magid to make the news entertaining is the same as using Frank Luntz to create the right words for GOP politicians to make Orwell’s 1984 come true a few years later than he thought it would. Money=Power=Control.
    By the way, I read Postman and have believed his truth for some time as it gets reinforced every day.

  8. Mike Nitabach

    You are correct to some extent. However, you are missing a big piece of the puzzle. As one of the other commenters pointed out, teevee news outlets are now *all* wholly owned subsidiaries of massive multinational corporations that use their news outlets as purveyors of propaganda that reinforces their corporate agenda in ways that go *far* beyond simply catering to advertisers.

    For example, GE–which owns NBC and MS-NBC–is also a massive war profiteer. This grossly distorts war coverage and increases focus on ridiculous and meaningless “news” like balloon boy and kids falling in wells.

  9. Bob K

    I think this is great!

  10. Bob K

    (Your hypothesis, not the reality of it.)

    And yes, how do people fit in that much TV? We just don’t watch it (though my kids sometimes get harrassed for it), and I have to say I don’t feel like we’re missing anything.

    Thanks, Scott!

  11. Scott Berkun

    I think the 6 hour figure is for hours the television is on, which may include time people are doing other activities while the TV is in the background.

  12. Bo Brock

    TV news has a very low information density. I worked for a private firm that consulted clients in both new and old media, and the thing that struck me most about TV was that its density was one-tenth that of print media. I found I could “read” a 30-minute newscast in about 2-3 minutes. This helps explain why television news spends so much time on sensational, video-heavy bits: car chases, disasters, weather, etc. That’s where the medium shines — or, to put it less charitably, that’s where text-based media don’t completely outclass it.

  13. False Flag

    I think the major flaw in your theory occurs at Point 4. Although people buy more things when they are scared or depressed, there is little evidence to suggest that an advertisement that they -see- while they are scared and depressed will cause them to -later- buy the product being advertised. This is a rather big assumption of collusion, and is also the least parsimonious argument. It is just as (if not more) likely that people pay more attention to bad / unusual news, and that TV execs care primarily about number of viewers. This explanation requires no second or third term assumptions about what people do when they are done watching TV, it simply impacts the most realistic and immediate bottom line.

    Also, this more parsimonious explanation would help answer the question: If people were simply depressed or scared (as opposed to interested) in the news being presented, why wouldn’t news outlets that present less depressing and scary news be doing better, since presumably people don’t like being depressed and scared, and would choose less depressing news channels.

    What I’m getting at here is that you are assuming one extra step than is necessary or realistic. You say:


  14. Richard Marr

    I’d agree there’s a lot of weight to arguments about perception of risk being distorted by a wide-reaching media focusing on the extremes (I liked Dan Gardner’s book ‘Risk’), but I also think there’s something else making our ears willing to believe that things are getting worse.

    From Hagakure: “It is said that what is called “the spirit of an age” is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end.”

    That 18th century samurai felt their world was coming to an end isn’t surprising, as change was encroaching and their world was in fact coming to an end. If you’re afraid of change, which most of us are to some extent, of course you believe that the change you fear is a bad thing.

    If we’re subconsciously looking for reasons to justify our fear of change, it’s not hard to find them in TV broadcasts, even if the events portrayed are rare and remote.

  15. Leszek Cyfer

    It seems that expediency factor has kicked in – what’s tension releaving kicked out what’s goal achieving…

    Perhaps TV news will be reborn as an internet platform, with youtube-style movies, and many different, amateur and official aggregators – people who view the clips, find those they find importanr and put them on their aggregation pages, according to the theme, with ranking and short explanation.

    Some of them will search clips for breaking news – what’s going on at the moment, some will concentrate on crime, poverty, natural catastrophes, but also will be those who dig stories of hope, fun, things that are important to learn and grow as a person, music, DIY, fishing, sports, education etc.

    Add to this search and set-up channel system and people can create their own TV channels they can watch, stop/rewind, comment etc.

    Makes Me Think


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