Reinventing TV News

I don’t want to dwell on this but I have to say that TV news — especially local TV news — sucks. It favors heat over light. It repeats much, saying little. It goes overboard on weather, sticking rulers in the snow to show how it grows or standing in the wind to prove it blows. It adores fires — which, though terrible for those in their path, usually affect few — because TV news values video über alles. It delivers BREAKING NEWS that isn’t breaking at all but is too often long-over, repetitive, obvious, or trivial. It gullibly and dutifully flacks for PR events created just for TV. It presents complex issues with false and simplistic balance. It picks fights. It talks with only the usual suspects. It speaks in the voice of plastic people. It stages reality (the shot of the reporter nodding — called a “noddy” in the UK — is for the camera only, as is the subject’s stroll down the hall to nowhere in particular — that’s “B-roll”). Worst of all are the location-shot stand-ups, as when network and local reporters trudged with their satellite trucks and crews to the George Washington Bridge to talk about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a scandal around closed traffic lanes there — even though there were no sources, no officials, no witnesses, and no victims to speak with; in short, there was no journalism to be done there. To TV news, all the world’s a stage and its people merely props. TV news wastes precious journalistic resource without holding itself accountable for the value it delivers.

But I don’t want to dwell on that. Instead, I want to examine what TV could do well.

TV can convene the public to action.

TV can summarize, sometimes too well perhaps. But delivering a quick overview of what’s happening is a useful function of news.

TV can curate, bringing together divergent reports and viewpoints.

TV can explain a complex topic and doesn’t have to dumb it down.

TV can demonstrate.

TV can foster collaboration, having witnesses share what they are seeing and what they know.

TV can discuss and needn’t shout.

TV can give voice to countless new perspectives now that everyone has a camera on laptop or phone.

TV can humanize without cynically patronizing or manufacturing a personality.

TV on the internet can now be freed from the need to fill a clock. It can expand past video.

TV can be two-way.

TV can now create assets of lasting value instead of just talk that fills time.

When TV does those things, is it still TV? I know people who are innovating with the form online and who object to calling what they do “television” because they don’t want the word’s baggage. But I say they should co-opt the word, revolutionizing the concept of television instead of letting it languish in its past. It’s true that there’ll soon be no way to distinguish among media. What used to be a text article in a print publication now, online, has video and audio; what used to be a TV story can now carry text and photos online; both can include interactivity and discussion and more. Still, I see value in commandeering the word television because I want innovators to take over the medium itself, pressuring its legacy owners to cast off their orthodoxies and idiocies. Those not-so-old broadcast companies, though weakened by the ceaseless growth of new competitors, still have good businesses and still attract the largest news audiences. They have had little motivation to change. Even newspapers and magazines, finally able to make video, have made the mistake of trying to ape broadcast TV. Change will have to come from outside media. Allow me to speculate on a few forms this new TV news could take:

TV with many eyes and many ears: When he canceled Piers Morgan’s prime-time show, CNN President Jeff Zucker said there just weren’t enough people — enough “big gets” — left to interview. How sadly absurd. TV keeps talking with the same big gets, the few usual suspects. But now, thanks to the fact that millions of people have TV cameras — a webcam, a laptop camera, or a smartphone camera — it is possible to interview most anyone and to bring an endless diversity of new voices to TV.

Picture, if you will, Wolf Blitzer’s gigantic CNN Situation Room video wall filled by Brady Bunch boxes with someone in each square. Imagine that below their faces are their latest tweets, so we can see what each has to say. Now imagine that a host — Wolf perhaps — can point to any of those people so we can hear their views. Or fire Wolf and let the audience take over, deciding who should be heard from next. The folks in the boxes could be experts from anywhere. They could be a panel of senior citizens talking about the impact of a change in Social Security law on their lives. They could be citizens questioning a government official. Any of the people watching could, in turn, see each others’ tweets or comments in a chat. Indeed, if any viewer has something worthwhile to add to the conversation, he or she could be invited to turn on the cam and join in. The prototype platform for this already exists in the form of Google+ Hangouts.

I’ve long wanted to make that show. Consider the genius of Fox News founder Roger Ailes. His brilliance wasn’t political and it certainly wasn’t journalistic; it was economic. He realized that gabbing about the news rather than gathering it would often be more compelling and get higher ratings at a much lower cost than making packages and stories — than reporting, in other words. His scheme had just one weakness: The Fox folk need someone to gab with. I know because I used to work a block away from their studio in New York and was often called in at a moment’s notice to opine — until their first choice arrived and I would be given the bum’s rush. When webcams were introduced, I was talking with an old friend and former boss who was a corporate executive at News Corp., and I suggested that Fox could put a cam in the home and the office of frequent commentator Andrew Napolitano. When news in a big trial broke, they could get his face and opinions on the air, avoiding chat-free silence or middlemen like me. My friend had me talk with a network VP about the notion, but the VP dismissed it out of hand because the quality was not [hear stentorian TV voice when reading this] broadcast quality. (I am relieved I was rescued from the prospect of aiding Ailes.) But soon thereafter, Fox itself was using a small camera and a satellite phone to put Oliver North on the air from the warfront in Iraq. Soon after that, I was doing regular segments on MSNBC from my den at home, talking about what those odd new beasts called bloggers were saying. Sadly, cams were a fad. They lost their cool. That’s because TV used them to be hip, not to hear new perspectives.

TV can now use the cameras the public carries with them everywhere to witness news with greater immediacy and authenticity. The trick in the future will be finding and verifying the presence of people at the scene of news so they can share what they see. Tim Pool — who made a name for himself broadcasting #OccupyWallStreet protests to the web for more than 20 hours straight via his iPhone — says he was the first journalist to use Google Glass to broadcast live TV while he was working for TV’s most notable innovator, Vice. Next, I think, we’ll see the audience able to direct coverage remotely, asking a witness or a correspondent to go here or there or ask this question or that. On Google+, a young woman named M. Monica, whose disability makes it difficult for her to travel, has been able to enjoy trips vicariously, using Hangouts to ask someone with a camera to point it this way or that on, say, a canoe trip. I’d hope that TV news would celebrate the explosion of cameras brought on by mobile technology to break down its walls.

The (very) latest: Cable news’ greatest strength — breaking news — is also its greatest weakness. After an anchor has read to us what’s known, she is given nothing to do but keep repeating the same facts (or speculations) and looping the same video, trying to fool us into thinking we’re up to the minute when we were up to date hours ago. Well, she could go onto other news, but cable won’t do that for fear that a competitor will catch a twitchy viewer’s attention. Cable’s addiction to fake breaking news reached its nadir, of course, in 2014 with CNN’s shameless exploitation of the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, filling air 24 hours a day for weeks with absolutely no news and with humiliating speculation about black holes. “I think that if people want to be critical of CNN for over-covering a story, that’s totally fine with us,” CNN’s Zucker told Mashable even after the network had been ridiculed by everyone from Jon Stewart to President Obama. “Clearly, the audience has spoken and what CNN did was correct.” Except that CNN lost that bump in audience and its credibility along the way.

Online, breaking news doesn’t have to be this way, for there is no clock to fill. A news organization can tell us what it knows and then not say another word until it knows something new. Imagine if an online news service offered us the promise of (a) summarizing what is known about a breaking story now, (b) updating only when something new is known, and (c) alerting us when that occurs and giving us the choice whether to watch the latest. Video news could steal a beat from Wikipedia. So long as the provider does not abuse the privilege by sending us constant alerts — the boy crying “breaking news!” — then we can go about our business doing other productive things until there’s something new to learn. The business model of cable news — imprisoning us with the false hope of something actually happening while showing us more commercials — may not support such a high-value service. But by motivating us to make frequent visits with alerts that matter, the net could make this business model work.

Explainers and backgrounders: Recall my discussion about unbundling the article into assets and paths. Wikipedia, once again, shows the way by providing background on news stories and topics. is making that into a business. There’s also an opportunity to make a business of backgrounders in video. Video is good at explaining and demonstrating; it can take us by the hand and guide us through a complex story. One of our entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY, Christian Fahrenbach, has done just that, using video to explain stories with complex ideas or histories for a German audience (because they are animated, his videos can be easily translated for other markets). Explainers need not go crazy with computer graphics. Sometimes, a smart person simply talking with us can be effective. One of the greatest uses of graphics on TV that I’ve ever seen was Tim Russert explaining election scenarios on his tiny whiteboard. The business advantage of explainers and other such enduring video assets is that their value does not disappear into the wind as soon as they are seen; they gain audience, reputation, and value over time as more and more people link to and come to watch them.

Silent (mobile video) movies: Media of all sorts are looking at mobile as just another content-delivery mechanism. TV thinks this means making shorter videos. But I wonder whether the issue with video news on mobile is not time but sound. If I need to kill a few minutes waiting for a train or want to get the latest on a story via video, I’ll likely not want to haul out and connect my earphones. I won’t turn on the phone’s speakers (and I hope no one else on the train does). This makes me think that one appropriate model for mobile video is the silent movie: text and moving images that impart information and tell a story without having to hear.

Depth: It’s often said that video for the web must be short because viewers will abandon a play after — this is a moving target — three minutes. Or a minute and a half. Or 30 seconds. Vine has taken this notion to its inevitable absurdity: six-second videos. So video, the shallowest medium, gets even shallower. In certain circumstances, this quest for brevity makes sense. But online video can also be longer, much longer than TV. I watched, riveted, Vice’s 42-minute report from inside ISIS. There is no shortage of documentary filmmakers who would like your attention online since they can’t get it on TV or in theaters. Interviews that would be cut to two minutes or less on the air can be played out to any length online.

Every week, I appear on This Week in Google, a show produced and hosted by Leo Laporte on his TWiT (This Week in Tech) network. Leo, our cohost Gina Trapani, occasional guests, and I can spend an hour, often an hour and a half, sometimes even two hours yammering on about Google and related technology news. This could — and should — never be done on the mass medium of broadcast TV. But online TWiT’s stable of about two-dozen shows can find their interested, loyal, and highly targeted audiences, ranging from 50,000 to 250,000 per week. You’d think that making shows for such small audiences would hardly be worth the effort. But consider that often MSNBC’s audience runs only about double TWiT’s, and many cable networks have audiences so small they don’t show up as blips on Nielsen’s measurements.

The freedom of format allows Laporte — like the interview master, Howard Stern, on his satellite radio show — to talk with someone interesting until he has satisfied every curiosity, no matter how long it takes. Online tools also help Laporte drastically reduce his cost, using inexpensive but high-definition consumer cameras in his studio (which started as one very small room in a cottage in Petaluma, California) and using webcams on laptops for cohosts such as me to join the conversation via Skype or Hangouts. Laporte breaks more rules of broadcast TV. When he makes TV, he is simultaneously making radio as some members of the audience watch live, some watch later via streaming, and a good proportion listen to audio downloads of his shows in their cars or while jogging or at work. And Laporte tears down the wall between TV and its audience via a chatroom that is always running on his network, allowing us on-camera to talk with folks who are watching, getting their questions and ideas and often relying on them to answer questions we pose — for, as Dan Gillmor has said, our audiences know more than we do. Thus TV becomes two-way at last.

TV news has so many opportunities to reinvent itself. We are starting a series of events at CUNY and my colleagues there are teaching a course devoted to reinventing TV news. Its rebirth is about to begin.

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