Why TV News Sucks

For the past twenty years, I have spent the majority of my time on an airplane. London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tel Aviv. Its all in the course of a day’s work.

I live in hotels.

And the first thing I do when I come into a hotel room is turn on the TV set. And the first thing I watch is the local news.

The odd thing is that no matter what country I am in, no matter what the language they speak, I always know when I am watching the news. French, Italian, Japanese, Urdu.. it does not matter, I always know when I am watching the news.

How do I know?

It always looks the same.

A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

France, England, Germany, Japan, China, Russia. It’s always a guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

BBC… NBC… NRK…. NHK…. ABC… TV3… CNN… Does not matter. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday… Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

8am, 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm, 11pm…. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

2007, 1997, 1987, 1977, 1967, 1957…. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

Go to the Museum of Broadcasting and pull out the tapes of John Cameron Swayze and the Camel Caravan of News. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

What is the problem here?

Television is potentially the most creative medium in the world. It’s all about manipulating pictures and sound and music and graphics and writing and storytelling. It has so much vast potential to do virtually anything.. and this, this… is the best we can come up with ? A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

Why is that?

Why is a medium that could be so incredibly creative and innovative turns out to be so turgid, boring, banal and predictable?

A lot of it has to do with cost. The cost of production.

For most of the history of television, the actual act of making television was a remarkably expensive and complicated thing to do. You had to book crews and cameramen and sound men and editors and hudreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear and it took forever. You had to schlep this crap out to some location with a van and run electrical cables to power the lights and charge the batteries and everything weighed a ton. The whole thing cost money.

And when you are spending money, you tend to get conservative. Very conservative. So television news was born into a mindset of expensive and be careful! Don’t take any risks. Don’t try anything new. Because each time you commit the crew and the team you are spending money, and creativity requires risk that it might not work and if it does not work and you have spent money with nothing to show for it, you are gonna get fired. So television engendered and honored and promoted legions of highly professional non-risk takers. And they ended up running the shows and making the calls. And they were right… in 1977 and even in 1997. But not in 2007.

Not in 2007 because it does not cost anything… or hardly anything, to make TV.

You have an idea? Good, here’s the camera, here’s the laptop. There’s the door. See you at 6. Lemme see what you can do. If its great.. great. If it sucks.. who cares? Try again.

This is called Freedom to Fail.

It’s a really important element in any creative environment. We have to learn not only to tolerate failure, we have to learn to praise it, to encourage it, to embrace it.

Because this is how evolution works in nature (unless you believe in intelligent design). Nature tries lots of stuff. Millions of tries. Only a few survive, because they work better. But inherent in that evolution is is not only a tolerance of failure, but a praise of it. To improve you have to embrace failure. Which is something we don’t do in television news. We just keep repeating the same formula over and over and over for years and years.

If nature worked the way that TV news works, we would all still be single cell creatures.. with a boxes over our shoulders.

8 responses to “Why TV News Sucks

  1. However, you’re overlooking the desirable effects of doing the same thing, or almost the same thing, for an extended period.

    For one, your viewers know what to expect – granted, tv news is so highly standardized now that it’s hard to engage with any of it, but the fact is, most of us need familiar signposts to navigate by, whether it’s a newspaper, tv show or website.

    So – to stretch your argument past where you meant to take it – too much experimentation is bad too.

    Second, there is something to be said foir mastery. Commercial tv news is a very restrictive form, like a sonata or haiku. TV’s restrictions produce vast amounts of undistinguished work, but they also produce a kind of poetry, in good hands.

    Put it another way: a jazz musician may go out and play “My Funny Valentine” every night for a decade. In its broad outlines, it’s the same song – but if he’s good, it’s also different every time out, and catches the moment.

    That’s what good, traditional tv news does too, and while I’m more in your camp than not, I don’t want to give up on craft either.

    Scott A.

  2. I totally agree with the freedom to fail premise. It’s the mark of new media projects done well — they fail as often as they succeed, but the successes rise to the top and the failures are simply dropped, no harm done.

    With respect to the specific example of TV news, I have say that it sucks for more than just the guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder. Take a look at some of the set innovations recently, such as Katie Couric on CBS or the all-envelopiong screens at the Daily Show (yeah, I know, it’s not “news”).

    The sets are changing a bit, they are some new styles. But, fundamentally, the news is worse than ever. Box or no box, the content stinks and we know it. Surely in your travels in the last two weeks you’ve found all the “news” focusing on Anna Nicole Smith. Box or no box, that kind of plastering of the airwaves (by transmitter or cable or Internet pipe) with crap just reinforces the notion that traditional news is dead.

    Until the networks and stations out there get the VJ religion and start assembling compelling content and compelling stories from the real world (not the Real World, please), then the sucking will continue.

    But I have to admit, I am tired of the box.

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  4. It is time to take an axe to the ole Boob Tube. Local television programming and propaganda has degraded to such a bad state that A.M. radio, the newspaper, even blogging have now become a more entertaining and informative media. As television viewers we are now subjected to commercials and hyper- advertisements blaring thru the airwaves almost every five minutes. One hour programs are now actually 30-45 minutes, with half hour programs having less than 15 minutes of actual content. Have you noticed how many programs now recycle parts of the first half of the show to fill air time. Do they assume that the majority of folks are so brain dead and attention deficit now that they are unable to recall what was viewed ten minutes ago? With all this income from commercial advertisers, where’s the beef? We’re still watching cheesey sitcoms and trailer trash talk shows recycled thrice per diem.

    And if that’s not bad enough, not a single TV station can stand on its own programming merit. They are now synchronizing commercials and programs with brother-in-law stations to impede speed clickers from channel surfing. Is this what they mean when they say stay tuned? I have made a decision to run against the grain and have vowed not to spend any of my hard earned dollars on a single heavily advertised product or service. The competition between broadcasters has now been eliminated. Cable and pay TV programming is now being subsidized by relentless advertising aimed at low income broadcast viewers.
    The FCC needs to allow for more competition in local markets by regulating major media ownership to only one broadcast station per market and allowing more for competition with low power broadcasters
    Has anyone invented a spam blocker for Television?

  5. Boy, you could sell sand to an Arab.

  6. man you must be billionarre.Live in Hotels and planes,my heart bleeds for ya mate you must have it so hard.

  7. I think its totally wrong when turds like you are so well off when lots of cool people cant even get a days work

  8. What color ink do you prefer to write with?

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