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TV stations are completely
ratings driven
--and driven by consultants

Before cable TV, the three network affiliates in each city had a virtual monopoly on viewers.  At 6 and 10 (or 11), there was nothing else to watch except the news and all three affiliates generally had about a third of the audience.  The 'number one' newscast was only slightly above the others.  It was said a television station license was a license to make money.  Since the program choices for viewers are now vastly wider, local stations are much more sensitive to their viewerships--to attracting them and keeping them.

Then came the ratings consultants

By around 1980, stations began hiring consultants to analyze ratings, conduct focus group surveys, and help stations keep their viewers.  The consulting fees stations were paying would have equalled the salaries of a  half-dozen reporters.  These consultants were not paid to recommend serious journalism.  They were paid to get viewers.  Over time, consultants developed some "truths" to gaining ratings.  Now virtually all local stations subscribe to them-- and serious journalism is not among these "truths."

Consultants changed TV's look--and the news

Through their research, consultants advised the obvious--and not so obvious.  They told News Directors that viewers were loyal to anchors which are familiar, friendly, attractive.  The consultants coach the anchors to seem that way.  But that's not all.  The consultants would show videotapes of anchors, studio news desks, and even news stories to small, controlled groups of viewers to get feedback.  By studying these focus groups carefully, the consultants could accurately assess which anchors and studio designs were the most appealing.  It wasn't long before the consultant for one station was arranging for popular anchors on competing stations to be offered jobs in other cities--just to get them out of town!  They recommended stations promote their news images, change the look of the news, and consultants changed the news content as well.  The consultants told nervous news directors what kinds of stories people would not tune out.  News directors bought it all because their competitors hired consultants too.

  Stations tell the FCC they're providing actual news headlines during the 8 and 9pm network breaks, but consultants taught them not to give news--only to "tease" viewers so they'll stick around for the newscast later.  Stations also followed their advice by buying expensive news sets which highlighted their anchors.  They were lit differently, anchor chairs were raised higher and moved closer together to promote togetherness and make anchors appear larger than life.  Soon all the stations were doing "consumer"  and "medical" news because the research said viewers liked it.  But aside from anchors, the real ratings-builder is sensational crime, accident and violence.

If it bleeds, it leads

 While a student of Edward R Murrow might want to lead a newscast with the most "important" story, the consultants urge local stations lead their newscasts with the most sensational to grab viewers before they might be inclined to change the channel.  Hence comes the phrase "if it bleeds, it leads."

  Crime is big--crime against the innocent even bigger.  If there's a sexual angle, it will be there as explicitly as the TV people dare to say it, pretending their disgust on each successive newscast.  And since people are fascinated with fire, photographers shoot lots of fires and news producers would run all they could get at the top of the show.  They'd throw out the day's stories and throw their whole staff at a big fire for "team coverage" of any fire which still had big flames when the news crews got to the scene.  That it might be an abandoned old warehouse doesn't matter.  Viewers are drawn to spectacle and that makes yellow flames the lead story.

Talking heads are out

What is unpopular with viewers, the consultants reveal, are talking heads.  So mayors get less face time and ambulance paramedics get more.  Stations quit covering city councils, school board meetings, and political speeches.  The only exception to the meeting coverage taboo is when they get an advanced tip that somebody plans to create a scene.   Then the cameras will be there waiting for the spectacle.  Controversy is always big--but only if there's emotion.  Political stories, even tax stories affecting everyone, may be important but they're ignored by TV unless the stations can find very strong and inciting comments to touch viewer emotions.  Wise politicians and local activists learn quickly that if they want their faces on the tube, they must tip the media and be passionate, "You're being ripped off by this tax scheme!" they'll declare, after assuring out of the corner of their eye that the cameras are focused and trained on them.  Politicians who do it well will be called--and often--by reporters looking for cooperative spokesmen with reputations for giving good talking head.

Play to viewer emotions

  "Emotion", coach the consultants, "that's what viewers want."  So TV stations now seek to press every viewers' emotional button--anger, fear, sympathy, admiration, disgust, love and sex.

Cute animals and cute kids are the most popular topics for feature stories.  For a long while, TV people inundated us with sympathetic stories about the homeless and poor until national polls showed the public was less sympathetic. Crime and disaster stories are always lead stories--and made to look big even if they really aren't.  They're emotionally presented to focus on the outraged or grieving victims.  Tearful parts of an interview are always the chosen sound-bites.  Reporters want to capture emotions so badly, they completely forget any notion of allowing privacy or personal dignity to grieving victims or their families.

One strange phenomenon is that many victims will play along with the camera's voracious appetite for emotional intrusion.  Often victims in deep personal grief (or guilt) will give what are most certainly difficult interviews for the cameras--as if they were actors obliged to personally replay what they have seen other victims play.  Perhaps confession eases the soul and talking about loss before cameras begins acceptance.  It is a macabre and intruding scenario played after a great many personal tragedies.  But viewers love it and television stations do too-- because it keeps people watching.
Women who have slept with politicians get instant TV celebrity and the wives of those politicians dutifully go on the air. Survivors or witnesses of crimes and natural disaster are incessantly asked the tiresome question "How do you feel?"  The photographer zooms in so close-up, you can see their nose hairs and every tear.

  If there isn't emotion, create some--even if it is contrary to the public good.  If producers don't have victim interviews to build obvious emotion in a story, they'll create some to explicitly build fear.  "A young woman was brutally murdered on the west side--and it could happen in YOUR neighborhood."  That last part is not news.  It's not a quote from a source scribbled in a reporter's notebook.  Nobody said it except the copywriter following the consultant rule to "build emotion."  What that is, is 'creative writing."  Is it defendable?  Well yes, technically, any crime can happen in any neighborhood, although it is unlikely that it will happen in most viewers' neighborhoods.

So is that play to the every viewer's fear emotion responsible in a newscast?  The sad part of this practice is that it is reckless.  There are many people, especially elderly people, who tend to believe whatever they hear on the news and tend to naturally become fearful.  Elderly people watch news a great deal.  This essayist will submit that it is patently irresponsible to use these techniques because they do harm to the most emotionally vulnerable of their viewers.  There are simply too many elderly people who shut themselves in, isolate themselves, further from society because of fears manufactured by television stations to get ratings.  In short, this deliberate news practice is outrageous and stations which use this ploy should be publically chastized until they stop it.

If anything, a station truly concerned about its viewers would interview grief counselors to reduce fears and anxiety after a community tragedy.

If there isn't emotion, go find some--and keep looking until you do.  In a large city, it's not hard to find some people who agree with most any loaded question.  One formula to play on fear will be to send a photographer out to ask young women a leading question, "are you afraid after this brutal murder?"  They'll keep asking women until they get a several agreeing responses from people on the street willing to go along with the question in order to get a few seconds of fame.  The station will then build a story making viewers think they've discovered widespread fear in the community. "Residents are fearful tonight..." titillates the anchorman as he introduces the manufactured news story for the purpose of drawing in viewer attention.

Are things really as bad as we are led to believe?

You may actually find a station or two in your city which includes each of these ratings-building elements in every newscast--they have taught their producers well.  It is not news or particularly emotional to report that a million of our neighbors were NOT murdered this year--so stations focus on the fifty who were and they rehash those stories for months throughout the court trials of the accused.

It might be very interesting to find out if widespread fears in the nation about crime are fanned by TV people who deliberately tug viewer emotions night after night.  The same is true for corruption in government--since TV people provide a daily diet focusing solely on the wrongs committed by politicians.    It should not be surprising that stations will then quickly point to surveys showing Americans primary concern is about crime and they have disdain for anyone in government service.  What stations will NOT do is research whether people have those  views based on personal experience or what they see on TV every night.  What stations should really be concerned about is the growing negative opinion people have of the stations themselves--people perceptive enough to see through these many ploys to get ratings.

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