View Full Version : TV news' future: Not a pretty picture?

07-25-2005, 09:51 PM
By Rick Kushman -- Bee TV Columnist

BEVERLY HILLS - Show business, and the parts of Southern California that it weaves through, take every new, progressive and, sometimes, shallow impulse in American culture and give it a tryout.
Example one: The local news on KTTV, the Fox affiliate, was touting a "special report" last week. The subject - an investigation into dating sites with Russian women.

"Are they even Russian?" the serious news voice asked.

Example two: During every network press conference with TV critics here over the past couple weeks, studio and network publicists stood in the backs of the rooms, punching away constantly at their BlackBerries, text messaging madly to their offices, clients and, probably, to each other.

The point: The morphing of news into lightweight entertainment gets its energy here. The speeding-up of communications gets its demand here.

And that's why a talk here last week by Larry Kramer, CBS Digital Media president, sounded both prescient and frightening. Those two forces - superficiality and speed - are merging with enormous power in the media world, and the resulting shock waves will change the landscape for television news and for all other forms of news.

It starts with the simple point that more and more people get their first news, and much of their news, online, not from TV and - as tough as it is for me to say - not from print. That's no news flash. It's been happening for a few years. What is different is that constantly improving technology is making those numbers grow exponentially.

"We call it the Cable Bypass," Kramer said. "Ten, 15, 20 years ago, several companies decided to go into cable news. We believe that if they knew then what they know today, they wouldn't have made that decision.

"The public has really migrated toward the Internet for their news, partly because of the growth in broadband and the ease of getting news, including video, on the Web."

And that migration is happening not just on desktop computers, but also on all kinds of increasingly powerful portable units, ranging from cell phones to those BlackBerries.

Meanwhile, Kramer said, cable news has become just a series of talk shows and high-interest, low-value stories about crime or celebrities or whatever gets the best ratings that day.

Now, a disclaimer. You could argue that Kramer said that because CBS has no cable news network. It doesn't matter, though. He's still right.

CNN executives were here a week ago, saying almost the same thing, with only a slightly different spin. They were bragging about how CNN was driving people to its Web site, and how quickly it was getting stories posted.

And former Vice President Al Gore was here last week, pushing his new cable network, Current, that is aimed at 18-to 34-year-olds and, in reality, looks like it will be a moving Web site on TV.

Kramer said CBS News is putting its considerable resources, and all its outside sources, at the disposal of the CBS Web site to get news and video to people faster.

"When you have a certain amount of time ... you tend to go and get (news) in bites when you have time to do it," he said. "You don't really want to go to a cable news network, where you have to wait through a half-hour show."

What Kramer implied, but couldn't really say, is that CBS News' nightly broadcast, and all the network news shows, are becoming anachronisms even faster than they had expected. The result will likely be that TV news shows will become more like magazines, with longer stories and features, but no breaking news.

The obvious questions from critics was: When will CBS put more effort into the Web site than the CBS Evening News? And, even more simply, why would CBS hold a story for its TV news when it could post it online?

That, by the way, is a question all media outlets are asking themselves. The answer for CBS, as well as pretty much everyone else, is that TV and radio and print still have more reach, more influence and make more money. For now. What everyone is trying to answer is, when - not if - that will change, and how they will adapt.

Kramer said CBS' philosophy is that "news has become a loop."

"You no longer put up a story and go home, print it in the newspaper, put it on the evening news, and we're done with it," he said. "News takes on a life of its own. There are people out there who are blogging. There are people out there who know something about the story. They communicate back and forth. The story takes on new legs. A reporter can learn a lot more after it's published, and we're not satisfied with leaving those stories in place anymore.

"We need to treat news as a living organism."

So, on one hand, this sounds like a bright, new world. More information, more quickly and conveniently delivered. We'll all be better informed.

Or not. That's the same thing well-meaning people at CNN said when they started the first 24-hour news network. But eventually, CNN and the rest of the cable news nets needed to attract viewers. They reacted by giving them what is most popular, not most important.

Kramer talked about customizing the Web site so people can get the stories they want, and offering short summaries of longer pieces so people can choose their news. Popular news.

And that is where this gets scary - beyond the reality for those of us in the media that our world is shrinking. This is where the impulse to do lightweight stories, like reports on Russian dating sites, merges with the demand for instant information. News will get faster and thinner. The result could be to destroy whatever value is left in TV news, and it could take down the rest of the news world with it.

All those Webs and all those info services are going to be competing to survive. They will certainly use all the tactics cable news uses now, which means making the interesting sound important, or loading everything with emotion. There will be instant updates on the next runaway bride or the next Scott Peterson or the next shark attack. And they'll get people to argue about it all. They'll just do it online.

Many people will never see the serious news - such as international developments, or stories about politics and law - and those who do will get information in a rush, in bites, as Kramer said, making it all the more difficult to understand issues as a whole, to have some perspective, to just slow down and think.

Later that day last week, after Kramer's talk, Kelly Kahl, CBS' head of scheduling, was talking to critics, saying he, too, was taken aback by what might be coming.

"This is one of those times," Kahl said, "I'm as scared about where it's all going as you guys."

web page (http://www.sacticket.com/tv_radio/story/13294683p-14136958c.html)