News and commercial TV

Is respectable, serious news at all compatible with commercial television?

German politicians had a rude awakening when the new owners of one of the country’s two major private TV chains, ProSiebenSAT.1, cut back journalistic staff, got rid of their news anchor, and removed a couple of information programmes (actually, they were more like tabloid formats) from the schedule. Not that this came as a real surprise to anyone but the politicians.

ProSiebenSAT.1, which was until 2000 part of media magnate Leo Kirch’s now defunct empire, was acquired by international financial investors KKR and Permira. There never was much ambiguity or false promises as to their plans with the company: Make money, and fast. And since television news are usually more expensive but get a lower audience share than entertainment programmes, and as European rules actually prevent TV companies from interrupting news with commercials, the business rationale is quite obvious.

In Germany as well as elsewhere, nationwide commercial television only does news if forced to – and then often with, well, relaxed quality standards. But lawmakers do not seem to notice. Instead, they happily settle for rather negligible pro-forma newscasts and cry crocodile tears as soon as private operators cut their stations’ ostensible information programmes.

Maybe, therefore, it is about time to be honest and admit that news (and I mean real, jounalistic quality news) and private television do not go together. This is not to say, mind you, that news in general is not a desirable programme category or that it is useless for the public sphere – far from it. But to ask purely profit-oriented private companies to contribute them is like ordering cinemas to show historical documentaries instead of blockbuster movies in their largest halls, or asking tabloid newspapers to constantly remind their readers that reality might be different from the way they present it.

News in private television is sort of a killjoy, such as mandating cigarette manufacturers to put warning messages on their boxes: Television distracts you from reality. Watching too much television impedes your ability to take part in public discourse. Television may convey distorted values.

Maybe such admonishments would at least be honest. It is impossible to keep audiences from zapping away from news, and quite difficult to make commercially-oriented TV news report seriously on serious topics. So leave them be. No news-seeker in his or her right mind would turn to private television anyway – as long as there are public broadcasters committed to high quality standards, newspapers and a variety of online sources available.