News at 6: Bad News

By Tom Brislin
Honolulu Advertiser
April 3, 1998 Page A-20

The recent ratings report for local TV news concluded with the understated sentence: "Overall 6 p.m. news viewing on all four stations was down slightly compared with any recent rating period."

Actually, the accompanying table showed a 3 point drop in the aggregate ratings of all four stations over a year (from 39 to 36), the same decline shown in a similar Advertiser story and table one year ago. From February '96 to February '98, the 6 p.m. TV news has lost 6 percentage points, or 22,860 of Hawaii's TV households.

If only 36 percent of Hawaii's TV households are watching the news at 6 p.m., it means that 64 percent are watching something else, or nothing at all.

It was not too long ago that we bemoaned the fact that TV news watching dropped below 50 percent of Hawaii's TV households. Now we are facing the day when we'll have to admit news viewership is less than a third.

There are plenty of rationales for this continuing decline: Cable TV has expanded choice and channel almost exponentially - and plans more. Evening rush-hour traffic has grown thicker, delaying many commuters to a post-6 p.m. arrival at home (stations can take some solace at relatively strong numbers for late night news watching). Information options have multiplied, thanks to the Internet and Web, empowering those who wish to be informed with control over how, and when, they will be.


But the steady decline remains particularly troublesome when considering that survey after survey shows people saying their primary source of information is television news. If fewer and fewer are watching, then fewer and fewer are being informed.

The consequences of an uninformed or ill-informed society can be dire. Rumor, gossip and innuendo replace news as social currency. An electorate fueled on this highly combustible but mind-polluting mixture look for quick fix solutions driven by personality rather than policy. Segments of society prefer isolation to cohesion, and identity by divisions rather than unity. In the 1930s of Europe it was the formula to bring a dictator to power. In the 1990s it's the formula to yield citizen control of government to well-moneyed, narrow special interests.

In some ways the TV stations have themselves to blame. In the shortsighted quest for individual ratings, they adopt a formulaic approach to news that blurs the journalism-show business boundaries. The result is obvious: personality-driven "if it bleeds it leads" conflict-based newscasting is only producing (and consistently so) a smaller audience for the stations to scrabble after. To be declared the winner of such a diminished market is no badge of honor. It can just as easily mean you're the best at doing what's driving the majority of the potential audience away. At a 3 percent loss a year, in the year 2010 it will be a contest of which station can claim two of the remaining five households watching TV news at 6 p.m. to be the "ratings leader."

Perhaps the solution is to work at becoming the "news leader." It's quite possible the ratings may follow, and may increase overall TV news viewing. Forget about becoming the "happy chat" leader. Forget about becoming the "news anchor/clever travelogue" leader. Forget about becoming the "bubbly weather report" leader. Forget about becoming the "more macho than you" sports guy leader. Forget about becoming the leader in footage of endless flashing blue lights and yellow-taped accident/crime scenes. Forget about becoming the gratuitous overhyped sweeps week sensation leader with series about going-back-to-high-school nostalgia or male cops who pose as transvestite prostitutes (both of these are real stories, by the way).

The talent, skills and, for the most part, dedication are there. But they are being put to a frivolous use by carpetbag "consultants" and bottom-line thinking that wonders if journalism just costs too much to be a part of what's presented as "news."

The stories that truly affect people's lives are rarely illuminated by flashing blue lights, or explained by the chitchat among anchors or satellite photos of white blotches. When viewers don't see those stories - when the news stops becoming an integral part of their lives - they stop watching. And they have.

It's not too late to get them back. But the answer won't be found in a new set, opening theme, or anchor personality. It will be in a commitment to provide the news teams with the resources and rewards for a commitment to journalism - to explaining the complex issues that face us in life. And that's going to take more than a winning smile and a minute-ten.

Tom Brislin is a professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii