Micromanaging news on commercial TV?

Imagine your boss is about to fire you. Has it ever helped in a situation like this if you started whining about what you did for the company in the past? How much overtime you put in when you first started?

Hardly likely. If anything, you need to try and convince your employer of what you are going to bring to the table in the future.

Yet the Association of State Media Authorities in Germany is trying the former tactic with the commercial broadcasters now. In order to compel commercial broadcasters to ramp up news programming, the Association of State Media Authorities reminded TV companies how regulators contributed to their growth in the 1980s and 1990s by giving them air spectrum for free in exchange for the promise of a modicum of public service. But today, nobody needs terrestrial broadcasting anymore; in Germany, it accounts for less than 5 percent of television usage.

After years of crying crocodile tears yet being complacent, on 1 March, 2010, German media regulators finally published an austere position paper on news in commercial broadcasting. In it, the regulators threaten to impose strict new directives on time slots, duration, and even minimum budgets for newscasts in private television. This latest round of politicking followed deliberations inside the ProSiebenSAT.1 group, one half of the de-facto duopoly in German commercial TV, whether to sell off or even abandon their loss-making information channel N24. It was apparently only on this occasion regulators noticed how news had deteriorated all over the landscape of private broadcasting.

News: a losing proposition?

In fact, most commercial TV managers consider news a losing proposition to begin with. This has several reasons. Firstly, news doesn’t make money. This is not the broadcasters’ fault alone, but mandated by European media law: you are not allowed to break newscasts of less than half an hour with advertising, nor may you even have sponsoring announcements at the beginning or end. Secondly, on a regular day only a fraction of the audience actually wants to watch news. Inevitably, serious news programmes cause a depression in viewer numbers with people just switching over to another, more entertaining channel.

In absence of a justifiable public service obligation, private broadcasters respond to these issues in two ways: If they do not simply do away with news at all, they schedule token newscasts during times of the day when they can’t do much damage, such as after midnight or in the morning. Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to throw a lot of money or manpower at producing them; rather, TV executives put a pretty presenter in front of the camera and have her announce cheaply acquired generic news agency footage – if they don’t resort to yet cheaper pictures anyway.

Alternatively, commercial TV channels simply define on their own what’s news. In this case, newscasts usually don’t even remotely reflect what you might consider the day’s public agenda, as in politics, society, and business. Instead, you learn the latest international celebrity gossip or get an update on what happens on the very channel’s current casting shows, reality programmes, or sports transmissions. This kind of news still doesn’t make money, but at least it retains the audience and provides a nice opportunity to promote other offerings.

Are the private broadcasters to blame? I don’t think so. Once again, regulators are barking up the wrong tree. Among other things, this rather fundamental misconception is epitomised in the position paper’s observation that young people in particular tend to watch news on commercial channels — if they watch news at all — and that denying this target group quality information can’t be good for society.

News and the young audience

Although I tend to agree with the society part, I’m afraid the rest of the argument just confuses cause and effect: Younger audiences watch the so-called news in private television exactly because they don’t have anything to do with politics, et cetera. If these same newscasts were to change editorial direction towards the ostensibly better, they would suffer as badly from audience escape as the respectable news programmes in public broadcasting.

Similar arguments were used in Germany in the early 1960s, when the only existing public TV channel was facing competition from a second public broadcaster. Pessimists predicted audiences would start slaloming around information programmes (which they did) and that society was doomed (which, in hindsight, it wasn’t). Structurally, the same kind of people who don’t watch quality news today didn’t consume quality news 30 or 40 years ago either.

While back then, they might not have been able to flock to commercial TV, they engaged in other kinds of escapism for sure, such as yellow press, pulp fiction, or Easy Listening radio.

And there is another anachronistic argument invoked by the regulators: That information about current affairs is an essential quality of broadcasting. It is open for debate whether this tenet was still valid in the 1990s. In the meantime, the advent of the Internet (not to mention public broadcasting, cable, satellite, and an abundance of printed press) has rendered this point moot for good. In the 21st century, it is one thing to make sure that media overall provide rich and pluralistic information to everybody; to contend that broadcasting – and commercial broadcasting at that – still retains a special role fails to recognise how the times have changed.

It is time to eventually do away with the fixation of many politicians on television only because it can show moving pictures of these same politicians every day. As information goes, you will typically learn more from a five-minute radio newscast on public radio or from visiting a mediocre current affairs website than even from a high-quality 15-minute TV news show. News consumption is a function of the education level of a society and of citizens’ sense of ownership of the public sphere. Forcing media businesses to dangle news as a carrot in front of an apathetic audience will not help.

At the same time, media regulators need not to worry about their jobs. They could, for instance, crusade for quality in commercial programming in general, go after violations of human dignity in the media more effectively, step up their efforts in media education, and become strong advocates of net neutrality and open access to information as well as technology. But micro-managing news in private television would mean missing out once more on an opportunity to modernise German media regulation.

This article was originally published by the European Journalism Centre (EJC).

Thanks Flickr user Pierre Bédat for the photography.